by Cheo Tyehimba

In May 1962, then-Attorney General Robert Kennedy was asked: “What do you see as the big problem ahead for you? Is it crime or internal security?” “Civil rights,” he replied.

A week after Senator Ted Kennedy’s memorial, I find myself wondering not only who will fill the Grand Canyon-like gap he left behind but also that of the fabled Kennedy family mystique, particularly the brothers John and Bobby and their commitment to sixties-era civil rights issues.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder


I’d venture to guess that if our current Attorney General Eric Holder were asked what today’s “big problem” is, he’d say undoing all of the Bush Administration’s regressive policies especially in the area of civil rights. It’s clean up time, folks.

As reported this week in the New York Times, Holder has the green light to reframe and bolster the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. Among other things, the division will once again champion the enforcement of voting rights, employment, housing, anti-hate laws, the elimination of the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine, and bank lending and redistricting laws – all areas in which African Americans and other minorities fare disproportionately poorly.

Holder’s move deserves a pre-game locker room-style, slow handclap. I love it.
Not because of my politically progressive viewpoints and personal experiences, but mostly because it’s the legal, necessary thing to do. Whatever gulf existed between public opinion – at least among progressives – and political will during the Bush White House is finally being shored up now.

But Holder and company will have their work cut out for them. As was reported, no other administration in history has done as much to undermine the advances made by the division as the Bush Administration. Under the Bush Administration, the Justice Department was adrift in self-aggrandizing seas, navigating with its own warped license and interpretation of law, often only acting on civil rights violations when there was explicit evidence of intentional discrimination. That left many other potential cases untried and claims unmet.

In fact, the Bush era itself arguably has made new civil rights legislation necessary. That’s right, they brought this on themselves. Whether it was “sanctioned” torture of prisoners, election-result-skewing false terrorism alerts (check out “The Test of Our Times”, the newly released memoir of former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge) or voter fraud, its going to be a minute before we dig up all the bodies of evidence left in Bush’s wake.

While conservatives may question this return to a pro-active, watchdog-style of civil rights enforcement, I say it’s the exact kind of duty-bound protection of American freedoms that Robert Kennedy worked and died for. These are the guarantees Ted Kennedy championed for 46 years in the Senate.

Now is the time to give these rights a much-needed boost. The great racial dichotomy of our times insists upon it. Where else on the globe can democratic freedoms produce a black man as president of the world’s most powerful country and yet produce violations of those freedoms resulting in another black man being chased, chained, and dragged to death by racists in Texas?

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