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This Commission Is a Far More Independent Body Today

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Following are excerpts of an interview with Linda Chavez, staff director of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, by Assistant Editor Tom Mirga.

QHow would you characterize the commission's shift in philosophy in the past year?

AIt's a shift toward the ideals that marked the civil-rights movement in the mid-1960's. The goals of the movement were to provide equal opportunity without regard to race, gender, national origin, or religion. We have tried to rededicate ourselves to those principles. [The previous] commission and the leadership of many civil-rights organizations moved away from those principles during the past 10 or 15 years and moved toward the idea that certain groups should be granted preference. That is the break between this commission and the previous commission.

QWould you say that the public shares the commission's views?

AThere's no doubt that they do. All public-opinion polls that ask whether a person should be granted preference on the basis of their race or gender show overwhelmingly that Americans are opposed to such preferences. According to a Gallup Poll that was released last fall, about 79 percent said they opposed race preference. Even a majority of blacks oppose it--about 52 percent or so.

More important, these goals were shared by those people who really put together the civil-rights movement back in late 1950's and early 1960's. All you have to do to get a sense of what those goals were all about is to read the transcripts of the debates that took place on the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Everyone said the bill was to provide opportunity, to lift barriers, and not to grant a quota.

QYou say that a majority of blacks support the commission's position on race preference. Why is it, then, that you face such stiff opposition from groups like the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights and other organizations claiming to represent the interests of minorities?

AThey clearly don't represent the majority of blacks if the public-opinion polls are correct. I'm not sure that reliance on quota programs does very much for the downtrodden, either. ... If you walk three or four blocks from my office to 14th Street and interview some of the guys standing out on the street corner without jobs, many of whom are now second- or third-generation underclass victims, I wonder what racial quotas in university admissions or quotas in corporations do for those unemployed blacks who lack skills, many of whom are functionally illiterate and have no job experience. Quotas don't help people who are in that position.

I don't think anybody can make good case that in the past 20 years we have not had a change in terms of racial prejudice and discrimination. We are not where we were in 1964; there is more opportunity available. We have not reached the millenium yet; we we are not at a point where racial prejudice is totally absent from the hearts and minds of every American; it is not true there is no discrimination in the workplace--there is. But we have made enormous progress.

QThere was quite a debate in late 1983 regarding the manner in which the members of the current commission were selected. Did that selection process in any way compromise the independence of the panel?

ANot only has it not been compromised, but this commission is a far more independent body today than it has been perhaps in its history. In the early days, the cooperation between the White House and the commission was intense. Bill Taylor, the commission's general counsel during the Kennedy Administration [and staff director during the Johnson Administration], routinely attended weekly meetings at the White House. He sat down not just with White House staff but with members of the Democratic National Committee to strategize about civil-rights issues. No one raised a hue and cry then that the independence of the commission was being jeopardized by such meetings.

QTo what degree does the commission cooperate with the White House today?

AThere is no communication between the White House and this agency or any of its officials about what the commission should or should not be doing. There aren't even suggestions about what we should or should not be doing.

QDo you think the President has the right to mold the commission as he sees fit, or would such action compromise the commission's independent status?

AThere's no doubt that President Carter, when making appointments to the commission, was seeking people who reflected his views on civil-rights issues. And I happen to think that's appropriate. It's the prerogative--indeed, the responsibility--of the President to make appointments on that basis. He is, after all, the person elected by the people, and one presumes that the appointments he makes are going to reflect his philosophy.

We are not an independent agency in the way that the Federal Elections Commission is or the independent regulatory agencies are. We are a part of the executive branch of the U.S. government. ... All these questions about control over the commission seem somewhat hypocritical to me in light of the belief on the part of those in the civil-rights lobby that they ought to have the right and the responsibility to have the final say on who gets appointed. No one, to my knowledge, elected Benjamin Hooks [the executive director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People] or Ralph Neas [the executive director of the Leadership Conference] to represent the people of the United States.

QDo you think the Leadership Conference and the naacp 'are out to get the commission,' and if so, why?

ABecause they used to own it--they felt they owned it lock, stock, and barrel--and they don't anymore.

They are very upset that we are independent. They don't want us to be independent; they want us to be dependent on them. They want us to be their spokesman, to do their research. Much of the research this institution used to turn out made wonderful polemics for political speeches. I don't think [the commission's studies] were thorough or thoughfully and carefully researched, at least not in a number of years.

QWhat have you done to improve the quality of the commission's work?

AWhen I came here, despite the fact that the majority of work that came out of this commission was economic research, we did not have a single economist on staff, not one. We didn't have a single statistician, although much of our work is statistical in nature.

I changed that. I brought in mathematicians, statisticians, historians, economists--people who are recognized in the academic world. I have brought in consultants and advisors to various projects who have standing in the academic community. And they are being brought in in a balanced way.

On our school-desegregation study, for example, we have people who are avid supporters of mandatory busing and people who are critics. I have brought in proponents of race preferences and quotas and critics of race preference and quotas.

Our assumption is we want to hear both sides. [The previous commission's] position was 'we already know the truth, we have all the answers.' The previous commission didn't feel balance was necessary. Again, they apparently felt they had a monopoly on the truth. And I don't think we do.

Judge us by the quality of our work. Look at our consultations, look at our consultants, our advisors, and our staff in comparison to the previous commission.

Look at our list of witnesses appearing at our affirmative-action consultation [this] month and compare it to the list of witnesses who appeared before the old commission. Look to see that the two dozen witnesses in 1981 were strong, outspoken advocates of race preference.

I think that any objective, open-minded person taking a look at the kind of work we are doing will be left with an unmistakable belief that we're approaching matters far more objectively than the previous commission did. I don't know how else one proves this.

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