10/30/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

McCain's Record On Civil Rights Disappointing For Detainees

In his April speech on racism, Barack Obama argued that some issues in this election "reflect the complexities of race in this country that we've never really worked through." He's right. A recent New York Times/CBS News poll found that twice as many blacks as whites believe current race relations in the United States are bad. In addition, a recent Associated Press/Yahoo poll finds that Obama's support would be as much as six percentage points higher if there were no white racial prejudice.

Though race relations have improved considerably since the Civil Rights Act of 1964, racism in the U.S. clearly still exists, and Martin Luther King's dream of a colorblind America still doesn't. Reports of poll workers challenging black voters and investigations of voter intimidation occurred as recently as the 2006 midterm elections. Dr. Keith Gilyard, author of Rhetoric and Ethnicity and keynote speaker at the 2008 Civil Rights Symposium, argues that progress has been made in the last 40 years, but there are still significant civil rights issues that must be addressed. "The greatest civil rights issue of our time is education, and surprisingly it is John McCain who has said that." See my previous post on Obama's and McCain's positions on higher education.

Barack Obama is widely viewed as the candidate of civil rights in this election, but civil rights issues are much more complex than many voters assume. An examination of recent legislation and policy positions on current issues sheds some light on where the two candidates actually stand.

Civil Rights Bill of 2008

Senate bill 2554 was sponsored by Ted Kennedy and co-sponsored by Barack Obama and 18 other Democratic Senators. With recent Supreme Court rulings and congressional legislation limiting the rights of individual workers, this bill is meant to "restore, reaffirm, and reconcile legal rights and remedies under civil rights statutes." It was introduced in January of this year and referred to the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. That Committee is chaired by Ted Kennedy and includes Obama. All but two member of its Democratic majority are cosponsors of the bill. In eight months, the bill has languished in the committee and has not been scheduled for a hearing. John McCain has made no comment on the bill, though he voted against similar legislation in 1990.

Affirmative Action
Barack Obama said in an interview with George Stephanopoulos, "I still believe in affirmative action as a means of overcoming both historic and potentially current discrimination, but I think that it can't be a quota system and it can't be something that is simply applied without looking at the whole person, whether that person is black, or white, or Hispanic, male or female." Obama has also argued that affirmative action should be based on income rather than race. On his campaign website, Obama mentions changing the hiring practices of the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice to remove the "political litmus test."

John McCain's record on affirmative action is mixed. His rhetoric on the issue has been to associate it with "hiring quotas" based on race, which he opposes. However, he has supported affirmative action in limited cases. He voted to maintain a program that encourages the awarding of 10 percent of spending on highway construction to women and minorities. He is on the record supporting an Arizona referendum that would ban affirmative action programs in government hiring. In 1983, he voted against making Martin Luther King, Jr. day a National holiday, a vote he has since said was "wrong." In a speech in Alabama in April, he referred to the 1965 marchers who were attacked on Edmund Pettis Bridge as "the best kind of patriots."

Workplace Discrimination

On his website, Obama presents three specific proposals for fighting employment discrimination. The first is to overturn a recent Supreme Court ruling that curtails the rights of women and minorities to sue for discrimination, the second is to pass the Fair Pay Act to ensure that women receive equal pay for equal work, and the third is to pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act that prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation. The Fair Pay Act was passed in the House in 2007 and filibustered by Senate Republicans earlier this year. Barack Obama voted to end the filibuster; John McCain abstained. The filibuster killed the bill.

The Employment Non-Discrimination Act was voted on in the Senate in 1996, before Obama was a Senator. John McCain voted against the act and it failed by exactly one vote. The bill was reintroduced in the House last year with exemptions for "small businesses, religious organizations and members of the military," and passed. It has not yet been reintroduced in the Senate. In 1994, McCain signed a statement along with 71 other Senators in which he promised, as an employer, not to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation. He has also repeatedly supported the rights of individual states to pass such discrimination bans, but does not support that ban on a Federal level.

English Language Law

A number of attempts have been made in the past 25 years to pass legislation designating English as the official language of the United States. In 2007, an amendment was added to the Immigration Reform Act that would designate English as the common language of the nation and encourage the government to "preserve and enhance" its role. The amendment clarified "that nothing in the act can be used to diminish or expand any existing rights relative to non-English services or materials provided by the government."

Barack Obama voted to include this amendment in the Act. John McCain voted against it. In a lecture at Kansas State University in 1999, McCain argued "we all need to speak English well if we are to succeed in this country. But no one should have to abandon the language of their birth to learn the language of their future. We don't need laws that cause any American to believe we scorn their contributions to our culture.

Habeas Corpus
Perhaps the most significant civil rights issue of the past eight years has been the decision by the Bush Administration to suspend Habeus Corpus rights for American prisoners in Guantanamo Bay and other holding facilities around the world. Habeas Corpus is perhaps the oldest and most commonly recognized legal right of all human beings to says a person cannot be detained against their will without due process of law. Our Constitution lists freedom as a right "ordained by God," not by a political administration or a congress. In June, the Supreme Court agreed with this fundamental concept and ordered the administration to grant detainees access to a court of law. Barack Obama applauded the ruling, saying, "we must uphold our ideals." John McCain called the ruling, "one of the worst decisions in the history of our country." An amendment to the Guantanamo Bay transfer plan in 1997 called for reinstating Habeas Corpus rights to detainees. Obama voted for the amendment, McCain voted against it.

OffTheBus is publishing a variety of stories that cover the policy differences between Senators John McCain and Barack Obama. If you have a policy expertise and would like to participate, please see Calling All Policy Gurus.