Administration seeks review of civil rights rules
WASHINGTON » The Trump administration is considering a far-reaching rollback of civil rights law that would dilute federal rules against discrimination in education, housing and other aspects of American life, people familiar with the discussions said.
A recent internal Justice Department memo directed senior civil rights officials to examine how decades- old “disparate impact” regulations might be changed or removed in their areas of expertise, and what the impact might be, according to people familiar with the matter. Similar action is being considered at the Education Department and is underway at the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Under the concept of disparate impact, actions can amount to discrimination if they have an uneven effect even if that was not the intent, and rolling back this approach has been a longtime goal of conservative legal thinkers. Past Republican administrations have done little to erode the concept’s application, partly out of concerns that the Supreme Court might disagree, or that such changes would be unpopular and viewed as racist.
“Disparate impact is a bedrock principle,” said Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. “Through the courts, we’ve been able to marshal data and use the disparate-impact doctrine as a robust tool for ferreting out discrimination.”
In New York, a lawsuit alleges that a large apartment complex in Queens will not rent to anyone with a criminal record, and that this has the effect of discriminating against African- American and Latino renters. The suit is pending, relying on disparate impact to make the case.
In Maryland, civil rights groups complained to the federal government after the state shifted transportation money from a lightrail project that would have helped mostly African-American residents of Baltimore. The money instead went to bridge and road projects that served mostly white residents elsewhere in the state. A Transportation Department investigation into the matter was closed this summer.
In education, the Obama administration reached settlements with school systems such as the one in Lodi, where an investigation found widespread disparities in student discipline.
African-American students, for instance, were five times as likely as white peers to receive out- of-school suspensions for willful defiance or disruption.
In 2014, the Obama administration formally advised school systems they may be guilty of racial discrimination if students of color are punished at higher rates.
When investigators and courts incorporate disparate impact in a review, they are looking at more than the intent of laws or practices. They are also evaluating whether a policy’s impact varies based on race, ethnicity or other factors.