Comes now before the Supreme Court of the United States the honorable William T. Coleman, former secretary of transportation, noted lawyer and now something very special: a friend of the court. He is appearing in the case of Bob Jones University et al v. the decency and common sense of the United States of America and he has been summoned by the court because the government will not do its job. It has quit.
It has quit taking the side of the poor and it has quit taking the side of the oppressed. It has quit being the champion of minorities and women and workers and even passengers in passenger cars. Its friends are the rich and the powerful, the white and the male and when it comes to passenger safety, either the people who make cars or maybe the members of the American Association of Plastic Surgeons.
In the case at hand, the government has quit insisting that private schools that discriminate on the basis of race are not eligible for tax exemptions. This was the position of the Nixon, Ford, Carter and, it was assumed, Reagan administrations. It was to some consternation, not to mention a great deal of confusion, that the administration announced it had a new policy. In fact, for a while it had a new policy every week. What it came down to, though, was that the administration was no longer willing to contest the issue with Bob Jones University and other schools that had taken the government to court.So here we were at the Supreme Court where on one side stood the racist institutions and on the other side . . . .
Well, there was no other side. The government would not defend the victory it had won in the lower courts. If racist schools wanted tax exemptions, they either ought to have them or Congress should forbid it. The administration itself had no policy. It had adopted its customary pose on matters of morality ranging from school desegregation to the Falklands: neutrality. If racial justice were sex, the Reagan administration would have a perpetual headache.
In the old days, of course, this could not happen. The federal government was the champion of minorities and the poor. It spoke for people for whom no one else spoke. It offered lawyers for those who could not afford them and it enacted legislation to secure and protect the rights of people whose rights were systematically abused.
There are issues on which, as they say, reasonable men might differ. Maybe tax exemptions for racist schools is one--although most reasonable men take the position that it would be unreasonable for the government to subsidize racial discrimination. But what's important here is not just the issue--whether Bob Jones University et al are right--but whether the minorities of this country have a right to look to their government not just for protection, which is one thing, but for support, to be their champion. That is something else again. And to that the government is saying no.And it is saying no across the entire civil rights spectrum. From busing to tax policy, it is changing course. It is not only altering policy, but it is in example after example not only no longer supporting the underdog, but refusing even to present the underdog's case. For instance, the Justice Department's civil rights division, which used to institute up to 200 suits a year, has instituted only about 60 since Ronald Reagan's inauguration.
Things are no different in other areas. On auto safety, the government sides with the manufacturers. On coal mine inspections, it takes the side of the operators. It tries to gut the Legal Services Corporation, which sometimes is all that stands between the poor and exploitation, and it has cut back on OSHA, siding with employers against their employes.
The Reagan administration apparently thinks it should do as little as possible--it should be neutral. The trouble with that is that on many of these issues, there is no such thing as neutrality.
By ducking out, the government sides with the rich and powerful who don't need any help to argue their position, have it heard and, most of the time, enforce it. In these and other cases, the government has done more than merely abandon its position or the concept of fairness. It has abandoned the people who need it the most.