Last week, the Senate education committee held a confirmation hearing for a woman who has arguably done more than any other government official to fan the flames of America’s culture war: Catherine Lhamon.
President Biden has nominated Lhamon to return for a second stint as assistant secretary in the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR). During her previous term under President Obama, Lhamon transformed that office from a guarantor of statutorily defined rights into a forward operating base for coercing compliance with liberal social dogma on matters ranging from allegations of sexual assault to school discipline to transgender issues.
North Carolina senator Richard Burr, ranking Republican on the committee, described Lhamon’s track record as “deeply troubling if not outright disqualifying.” But he and his colleagues seemed focused on fighting the last culture war—over Title IX and allegations of sexual assault and abuse on campus—rather than the Left’s social crusade de jour: critical race theory.
To be sure, Lhamon’s track record on Title IX is worth scrutinizing. Under her leadership, OCR coerced colleges to adopt a new “preponderance of the evidence” standard for investigating allegations of sexual assault and abuse on campus—a standard that critics on both left and right say creates a presumption of guilt. When Donald Trump’s Education secretary Betsy DeVos issued a regulation with a stronger emphasis on due process, even the liberal Washington Post editorial board admitted that DeVos got quite a bit right.
Reasonable minds may differ on this fraught issue—but senators have good reason to doubt whether Lhamon possesses a reasonable mind. In contrast to the Post editorial board’s nuanced take, Lhamon tweeted that DeVos’s regulation takes “us back to the bad old days, that predate my birth, when it was permissible to rape and sexually harass students with impunity.” When Senator Bill Cassidy (R-LA) asked about this statement, Lhamon stood by it, declaring that the DeVos “regulation permits students to rape and sexually harass with impunity.”
Lhamon has demonstrated a similar cavalier lack of regard for evidence and due process on another key issue: school discipline. Under her leadership, civil rights investigations became tools of harassment to coerce changes in school policies. These deeply invasive investigations would end only when school districts agreed to adopt lenient discipline policies, notwithstanding evidence that these policies were destabilizing classrooms and leading to increased school violence.
After leaving OCR, Lhamon was appointed to lead the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, where she oversaw a report on disciplinary disparities, Beyond Suspensions. The report concluded that, despite substantial disparities by race in school suspensions, “students of color as a whole, as well as by individual racial group, do not commit more disciplinable offenses than their white peers.” The Washington Post pointed out that the report’s citations “did not offer such evidence. One set of data referenced in the report showed the opposite.” Either Lhamon had a sloppy grasp of the evidence on an issue she has worked on for years, or she willingly propagated misinformation through America’s premiere civil rights commission.
The Republican senators, however, did not challenge Lhamon on her record on school discipline. Nor did they ask any questions on the issue at the forefront of so many voters’ minds: critical race theory.
Earlier this year, Biden’s OCR suspended a decision that the Evanston/Skokie School District violated Title VI’s prohibition on racial discrimination when it segregated staff by race, instructed teachers to treat students differently based on race, publicly shamed white students based on their race, and taught that “whiteness” was a contract with the devil. The action sent a clear signal that OCR did not intend to enforce anti-discrimination law to protect white students or teachers.
The lack of any questioning on this issue is especially troubling because OCR could do far worse than non-enforcement. In her previous term at OCR, Lhamon’s modus operandi was to fabricate new interpretations of what civil rights law requires, then tell educational institutions that they could lose federal funding unless they “voluntarily” agreed to adhere to these dictates. No one should be surprised if Lhamon actually enforces critical race theory—by coercing school districts into “voluntary” resolution agreements that require “anti-racist audits,” mandate race-focused professional development for teachers, or require the hiring of “diversity, equity, and inclusion” consultants or staff.
Unless a Democratic senator decides to oppose her or abstain, Lhamon’s nomination is all but assured. The question is whether congressional Republicans will muster the gumption to exercise proper oversight and determine whether—and how—she is transforming the Office for Civil Rights into the Office for Critical Race Theory.
Photo By Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images