The Reagan administration is shifting federal civil rights policy just as the president indicated he would in his campaign, and recent reversals in several cases have produced turmoil within the Justice Department as well as dismay in the civil rights community.
In the last few weeks, the Reagan Justice Department has approved a school desegregation plan for Chicago that it had rejected as incomplete just a month before, declined to pursue a cross-district school busing case in Houston, settled a long-standing discrimination suit against Louisiana's university system, and dropped its support for free public education for children of illegal aliens in Texas, and for a voluntary busing plan in Seattle.
But it was an internal memo about a Yonkers, N.Y., school housing discrimination case that caused the most concern in the civil rights division. Several attorneys considered the memo by Deputy Assistant Attorney General Robert J. D'Agostino racist because of its generalizations about blacks, suggesting they tend to be more disruptive than other groups in class. Some even circulated a petition demanding that he disavow the remarks.
William Bradford Reynolds, head of the civil rights division, called a meeting with his school case lawyers late Friday to complain about the leak of the memo to The Washington Post and critical comments by an attorney after the Seattle reversal. Participants said he told them to quit talking to the press.
The civil rights community has been preoccupied by the push to renew key provisions of the Voting Rights Act, but the Seattle reversal and Yonkers' memo stories stirred some reaction.
"I think it's clear," said Benjamin R. Civiletti, attorney general during the last 18 months of the Carter administration,"that the Reagan administration as a matter of policy has retreated from effective civil rights enforcement. In my view that is a tragic withdrawal from the progress that has been made in equal rights in the last 20 years."
William Taylor, of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, said he was surprised by "how brazenly the Reagan administration has changed positions on cases already in the courts. They're not even making any pretense of paying respect to the need for consistency."
The NAACP board and the Leadership Conference are meeting this week, officials said, and may issue a formal denunciation of the recent actions.
Reynolds and Deputy Attorney General Edward C. Schmults were quick to dispute charges that the recent decisions constitute a retreat on civil rights.
"That's ridiculous," Schmults said. "Some people think any change in direction is a retreat. We're going to enforce those laws. We're talking about remedies that haven't made sense.
"We're trying to redirect thinking to try to improve enforcement. On schools, for instance, we'll focus on education, not busing people around willy-nilly . . . . This doesn't signal any retreat at all."
Reynolds offered a spirited defense of his recent actions. He said he thought the Louisiana settlement that emphasized increased spending on black colleges in the state was a positive development. The Seattle turnabout was justified, he said, because the state of Washington set educational policy, not just the local board, and he felt the state had a right to ban busing as it did.
Reynolds bristled at Civiletti's suggestion that changing remedies meant a retreat, or that busing is the final answer. He contended that busing hasn't proved as helpful to minority students as hoped, and has disenchanted whites and blacks. "Given that reality," he said, "our position is to try to address the core concern, that some of these children are not getting a quality education."
He said that as he reviewed school desegregation cases, "one thing that jumps out at me as the most remarkable deficiency in the litigation is that there is no effort to develop a record on educational quality. What are the schools like? The stock answer is that the law requires desegregation, so we have to move people.
Reynolds said he felt the "courts have latched onto" busing as a convenient remedy in desegregation cases. "But what are we doing when we come to the end of the bus ride? We have to put on our thinking caps and strike out in a different way."