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Groups Boycott Rights Panel's Hearings To Protest 'Repugnant' Public Remarks

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Washington--The chairman of a House committee and several prominent civil-rights groups boycotted a U.S. Commission on Civil Rights hearing on affirmative action last week, saying that recent controversial statements by the panel's chairman and vice chairman had rendered the event "farcical and meaningless."

"You don't deserve my response to any question, my recognition, or my respect," Representative Parren J. Mitchell, Democrat of Maryland, said to Clarence M. Pendleton Jr., the commission's chairman, before walking out of the March 6 hearing. Representative Mitchell, who heads the House Small Business Committee and whose family has long been associated with the civil-rights movement, called Mr. Pendleton "a lackey" of the Reagan Administration during an impromptu press conference following his walkout.

Chairman Unperturbed

Mr. Pendleton appeared unperturbed by the boycott, telling reporters, "I am prepared to stand by my record." In a speech delivered a day before the hearing, he called leaders of many civil-rights groups "the new racists," adding that preferential treatment of blacks in college admissions represents "nothing more than neo-slavery."

But Vice Chairman Morris B. Abram angrily challenged Representative Mitchell as he walked out of the crowded hearing room to explain why he "accepted an invitation to appear, submitted testimony, and then ran." Mr. Abram, in turn, was challenged by William Taylor, a former staff director of the commission, to say whether he was "open-minded about anything at all."

Major Escalation

The boycott and the subsequent shouting match marked a major escalation of the year-old battle between the bloc of commissioners ideologically congenial to President Reagan and opponents of the Administration's civil-rights policies. Education has traditionally been one of the commission's most frequent areas of inquiry.

Critics of the bipartisan fact-finding body allege that it has been little more than a "mouthpiece" for Administration policy since late 1983, when the White House engineered the appointment of a majority of members whose views on civil rights are largely consistent with those of the President. The commission's new majority, meanwhile, has strongly defended its independence and objectivity. (See Education Week, March 6, 1985.)

In an interview last month, the commission's Administration-ap3pointed staff director, Linda Chavez, pointed to the witness list for the hearing on affirmative action as an example of the new commission's evenhandedness. She noted that the commission had requested testimony from a number of organizations that have criticized its statements opposing the use of quotas and timetables in affirmative-action plans.

Testimony Cancelled

In mid-February, however, Julius L. Chambers, executive director of the naacp Legal Defense and Educational Fund, wrote to the commission declining to participate, saying he doubted his testimony "would serve any purpose at this time." And early last week, several other civil-rights groups wrote similar letters announcing that they were canceling their plans to testify.

In addition to Mr. Chambers's organization, other groups that boycotted the hearing included the Women's Legal Defense Fund, the National Urban League, the Minority Business Enterprise Legal Defense and Education Fund, the National Organization for Women, and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

In letters to the commission, the groups cited as evidence of the commission's bias the public comments by Mr. Pendleton and Mr. Abram that quotas "are a dead issue" and that support of such remedies is "immoral."

"The [hearing] appears to conform to the procedure for the legal proceeding in Alice in Wonderland: first the verdict, then the trial," said Barry L. Goldstein, a lawyer in the naacp Legal Defense and Educational Fund's Washington office, in a Jan. 30 letter to the commission. "It does not seem fruitful to spend time addressing the commission when it already has made up its mind and announced its decision."

"To testify before the [commission] might give the hearings the appearance of fairness and objectivity," added Judy Goldsmith, president of the National Organization for Women, in a March 1 letter announcing her group's withdrawal from the hearing. "now will not contribute to such an impression."

Boycott 'Disingenuous'

"I believe that these organizations' decisions are based on deliberate misrepresentations of the roles of individual commissioners and the commission as a body," Ms. Chavez said in a prepared statement on the boycott. "[S]ome of these organizations have chosen to focus on statements of individual commissioners as an excuse to withdraw from participation. These excuses are disingenuous."

Mr. Abram and Commissioner John H. Bunzel issued a separate statement calling the walkout "the sad manifestation of the state of a once glorious movement which celebrated openness and fairness and successfully appealed to America's conscience to give the civil-rights movement a full hearing."

"[T]oday's actions by some groups demonstrate they no longer care for hearings consciously designed to elicit different and contrasting points of view," they continued. "This action is petulant and unworthy of the founders of the civil-rights movement."

Pendleton's Speech

During his brief remarks to the commission, Representative Mitchell noted that he was particularly upset by a speech that Mr. Pendleton delivered at the National Press Club the day before the hearing. He said the commission chairman's remarks were "repugnant," adding that after hearing them, he concluded that "my conscience will not allow me to give you my testimony."

In the speech, Mr. Pendleton contended that the Congress, the federal courts, and the old civil-rights commission were to blame for the "disfigurement" of the 14th Amendment's equal-protection clause.

"I am aware that many of you believe that we are trying to destroy the civil-rights laws of this country," he told reporters. "We are not. We are trying to remove some of the disfigurement--scar tissue, so to speak--that in our opinions have marred the Constitution."

Mr. Pendleton described as "a milestone in civil-rights law" the U.S. Supreme Court's decision last year preventing lower federal courts from setting aside bona fide seniority systems to protect less-senior black workers from layoffs.

"I hope it will end what I call the new racism that confronts black people today," he said. "[The new racists] are typically supporters of civil rights. ... These new racists, many of them black, exhibit the classical behavior system of racism. They treat blacks differently than whites because of their race. ... [They think] of blacks as a commodity--of which they must have a sufficient supply--so as not to violate racist government policies and face the loss of federal contracts or dollars."

'Neo-Slavery'

Affirmative action in college admissions, Mr. Pendleton continued, "is nothing more than neo-slavery--or new racism in its boldest form."

He said the gap between black and white students' average scores on standardized college-admission tests "clearly means we ought to be making an all-out effort to improve elementary and secondary education for blacks."

"But no, our so-called black leaders are spending every moment peddling pain, complaining about budget cuts in food-stamp programs, job-training programs, legal services, and Aid to Families with Dependent Children," Mr. Pendleton said. "The faster these God-awful government and court-imposed preferential-treatment policies are abolished, the faster we can accomplish that color-blind, race-neutral society we all want. I am in a hurry to get there."

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