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Reconstituted Civil-Rights Commission Steams On New Course

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Washington--Last month, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the federal agency charged with enforcing the nation's employment discrimination laws, announced that it will drastically reduce the number of lawsuits it files aimed at obtaining relief for entire classes of employees, such as blacks and women, and will instead focus more attention on complaints filed by individuals.

The major policy shift was announced less than a week after William Bradford Reynolds, head of the Justice Department's civil-rights division, told a group of lawyers in Florida that "it will not be long" before affirmative-action plans involving quotas and other race- and gender-conscious remedies become a thing of the past.

Mr. Reynolds' statement, in turn, was preceded by President Reagan's first meeting in late January with his top appointees to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, who reported to him that his Administration has "turned the corner on the civil-rights debate."

"We believe that quotas are a dead issue," Clarence M. Pendleton Jr., the chairman of the panel, told reporters following the Jan. 29 meeting with the President. "We want to keep on course and make certain that we do those kinds of studies and activities that make certain that discrimination is not the only factor in lack of opportunity and that there is equality of opportunity and not a mandate for positive results."

Former Critic Now Ally

A little more than a year ago, such a statement from the commission would have been unthinkable, as would have been its silence on the new eeoc policy and on the statement by Mr. Reynolds. The 28-year-old bipartisan fact-finding panel was then one of the Administration's harshest critics, regularly lambasting its positions on issues such as tax exemptions for racially discriminatory private schools and busing for desegregation purposes and its funding proposals for agencies charged with the enforcement of civil-rights laws.

The commission has indeed turned a corner. Today, not only has such criticism ceased, but the panel has initiated a handful of studies and taken positions lending support to Administration theories on the nature of discrimination and the proper response of government when such discrimination is discovered.

According to its critics, the commission's sudden shift of direction following the appointment last year of a majority of members ideologically congenial to the President indicates that it has lost its credibility and is now little more than a "mouthpiece" for the Administration.

But for their part, the commission's supporters, while defending what they claim is the President's prerogative to mold executive-branch agencies like the commission, maintain that the panel "is a far more independent body today than it has been perhaps in its history."

Focus on Education

Much of the commission's recent work deals with the field of education--an area that has long been one of the panel's major areas of inquiry and one in which it has had a significant effect in the shaping of public opinion and policies.

Often cited as its greatest achievement in education was its successful advocacy of what is now Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964--the law that empowers federal agencies to cut off federal funds to schools and colleges that have violated civil-rights statutes. Observers also point out that a series of commission studies on school desegregation in northern urban centers in the early 1970's helped thwart attempts by members of the Congress to restrict busing for desegregation purposes.

"The commission's investigations and testimony in education and in other areas proved in many cases to be even more effective than the work of the Justice Department," says Bruce L. Payne, a lecturer in ethics and public policy at Duke University and a member of the commission's North Carolina advisory committee during the mid-1970's. "Its independence and its singlemindeness in the pursuit of civil rights made it an unusual and powerful instrument for change."

That power, says Mr. Payne, was sharply diminished with the appointment to the panel last year of a majority of members whose views are consistent with those expressed by the Administration.

"The effectiveness of the old commission depended on public perception that it was generally independent," he explains. "And that perception was widespread because the commission was often critical of those in government."

Debate Over Independence

The debate over the commission's independence can be traced back to 1983, when President Reagan, who in 1981 replaced two of the panel's six members, attempted to replace three more. That move led to a prolonged battle between the Administration and civil-rights lobbyists and senators to opposed the President's civil-rights policies.

The issue was finally resolved late in the year in a compromise that expanded the commission to eight members, four to be appointed by the President and four by Congressional leaders.

According to Ralph G. Neas, executive director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights and one of the chief negotiators of the compromise, the agreement assumed the retention of five of the six incumbent commissioners. White House and Republican Congressional leaders, however, denied the existence of such an arrangement, and together they appointed the three nominees sought by the President and the two members he had appointed in 1981, thus vaulting the Administration's selections into the majority.

Charting a New Course

The commission's new majority began charting a new course for the panel at its first meeting, in January 1984. After first voting to reject all policies adopted by the previous commission--giving the new commissioners, as Mr. Pendleton said at the time, "a clean slate"--the panel approved a number of studies grounded in concepts supported by the Administration. (See Education Week, Jan. 25, 1984.)

Among the topics to be studied are affirmative action in higher education, with special attention to possible links between such programs and declining academic standards; the possible role of bilingual-education programs in the isolation of Hispanic students; and the reasons that discrimination does not explain all the problems faced by minority groups. The first of these studies should be ready for release late this year.

The commission approved several more studies early this year, including an examination of racial isolation in housing to determine to what degree it is the result of discrimination or individual choice; a study of public attitudes to find out whether "racism and sexism are ingrained in American society"; and a study of standardized tests to see whether they discriminate against racial minorities, as some critics claim.

In addition, members of the commission's majority have released several controversial statements during the course of the year on recent decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court and on civil-rights legislation pending before the Congress.

For example, the panel's vice chairman, Morris B. Abram, recent-

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