A Republican senator from Texas has stripped the words “civil rights and human rights” from the name of the Senate subcommittee he now chairs. The decision is drawing criticism from civil rights activists, who say it is a “discouraging sign” given the tense state of U.S. race relations.

Sen. John Cornyn on Thursday was appointed chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on the Constitution, which until this week was named the Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights. The subcommittee is one of six panels within the Senate Judiciary Committee and is tasked with overseeing national civil, individual and property rights issues as well as federal-state relations and amendments to the U.S. Constitution.

“We changed the name because the Constitution covers our most basic rights, including civil and human rights,” Drew Brandewie, Cornyn’s press secretary, said in a Friday email to International Business Times. “We will focus on these rights along with other issues that fall under the broader umbrella of the Constitution.”

Nancy Zirkin of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights said that renaming the subcommittee is “a poor start” for Cornyn. The name change is “a discouraging sign given the growing diversity of our nation and the complex civil and human rights challenges we face,” she said in a Friday statement.

She noted that the recent killings of unarmed black men and boys by police officers have “have spurred a movement across the nation calling for reforms to our nation’s justice system, which would likely fall under this subcommittee’s jurisdiction.” In Ferguson, Missouri, the shooting death of Michael Brown by a white cop in August spurred protests and riots and sparked a national conversation around the state of racial equality in America. In Staten Island, New York, where a policeman fatally choked Eric Garner in July, relations between police officers and the public are steadily deteriorating.  

In response to Zirkin’s comments, Brandewie said the subcommittee under Cornyn's leadership would uphold its focus on “all of the basic rights guaranteed under the Constitution, including human rights issues, civil rights issues and issues relating to other Constitutionally protected rights like the freedom of religion, speech, press, assembly, petition.”

The “proof of the panel’s seriousness about addressing these issues will become apparent in its actual work,”  Zirkin said. “We only hope that this troubling name change doesn’t foretell a heedless retreat on civil and human rights.”