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What Obama and Romney Say About the Missing Campaign Issue of Civil Rights

Earl Ofari Hutchinson

What Obama and Romney Say About the Missing Campaign Issue of Civil Rights

President Obama and GOP presidential rival Mitt Romney have spent countless hours slamming each other over the economy, the deficit, joblessness, health care reform, Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security and energy policy.

They have made references to gun control, immigration, education, regulatory reform, and foreign policy issues on the campaign trail. They have even revived and wrapped their conventions around the standard wedge issues of gay marriage, abortion, religion and traditional family values.

Yet there’s been absolutely no talk about Civil Rights — that is, policies that specifically focus on racial and gender employment discrimination, hate crimes, and equal opportunity for minorities — during their war for the White House.

Here’s a point-by-point comparison of what Obama has said and done about Civil Rights during his White House tenure and what Romney has said and done during his tenure as Massachusetts governor and his years as founder and director of Bain Capital.

President Obama on Civil Rights:

•    Signed into law the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act, which empowers women to recover wages lost to discrimination by extending the time period in which an employee can file a claim. Obama supports the Paycheck Fairness Act that will add tougher legal weapons to fight pay discrimination, and he convened a National Equal Pay Task Force to ensure that existing equal pay laws are fully enforced.

•    Signed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which extends the coverage of federal hate crime law to include attacks based on the victim’s actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity.

•    Requested two years of double-digit budget increases in the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division. The Justice Department has reached three multi-million dollar settlements, including the largest rental discrimination and fair lending settlements in its history.

•    Supports extending the Employment Non-Discrimination Act to include sexual orientation and gender identity.

•    Signed the Claims Resolution Act of 2010, providing funding and statutory authorities for the settlement agreements reached in the Cobell lawsuit brought by Native Americans; the Pigford II lawsuit brought by African American farmers and four separate water rights suits brought by Native American tribes.

Romney on Civil Rights:

•    As Governor of Massachusetts, Romney chose a woman Lt. Governor, a woman chief of staff, and half of his cabinet and senior officials were women.

•    In business, he publicly stated that he mentored and supported women who went on to run major companies.

•    Supports the enactment of the Employment Non-discrimination Act, which bans gays from being fired, on the state level, but he does not support it at the federal level.

•    Publicly proclaimed that Arab Americans should not be subjected to harassment for their religious beliefs, saying, “This is a nation that recognizes the equality of all individuals.”

•    Declared that women have not had the opportunities that they deserve to get ahead in organizations. “If we are to compete as a nation, we’ve got to draw on the skills of women and minorities. And I have seen organizations from the federal government to corporations that are not drawing on the skills of women and minorities,” he said.

•    Supports the requirement that public companies and federal agencies be required in their annual reports indicate the number of women and minorities by income category, to help identify where the glass ceiling is, and enact measures to break through it.

The virtual silence of President Obama and Romney during the 2012 presidential campaigns on Civil Rights is not surprising. Part of that silence is the result of both Obama and Romney seeing the economy and health care reform as their path to or back to the White House.  Another reason for the silence is a history of presidential candidates ignoring racial matters.

Civil Rights as a campaign issue has seeped into presidential debates only when they ignite public anger and division, such as the red hot debate that raged over affirmative action for a time.

No president or presidential challenger in the past two decades, especially a Democratic challenger, has risked being labeled as pandering to minorities for the mere mention of Civil Rights or racial problems. But Civil Rights — whether mentioned or not on the 2012 presidential campaign trail — still strikes at the heart of the chronic colossal problems of health, education, employment and income disparities that plague minorities and in turn the nation.

These are problems that all presidents sooner or later will have to grapple with. It will be the same for Obama or Romney during their next four years in the White House.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst.