School & District Management

Civil Rights Group Seeks a ‘National Conversation’

By Mary Ann Zehr — September 15, 2010 | Corrected: February 21, 2019 8 min read
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Corrected: An earlier version of this story incorrectly noted the number of Republican commissioners on the U.S. Commmission on Civil Rights. There are four Republican members on the commission. It also gave an incorrect date for the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights on Tuesday launched what its leader ambitiously called “the start of a national conversation on formulating a new civil rights agenda for the 21st century,” but without significant input from mainstream civil rights organizations or the panel’s two Democratic members.

The low profile of those stakeholders speaks to the once-influential group’s uncertain status under the administration of President Barack Obama. Created by the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the commission is currently headed by Gerald A. Reynolds, a Republican who was appointed six years ago by former president George W. Bush. Of the commission’s eight members, four are affiliated with the Republican party and two are registered Independents.

But leaders of prominent civil rights groups did not serve on any panels at the full-day event, and the Democratic commissioners failed to show up.

“I think the Civil Rights Commission has lost its way; and I think the conference is a sham,” said Wade Henderson, the president and chief executive officer of the Washington-based Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, in an e-mail sent to Education Week the day before the Sept. 14 conference. He was one of the civil-rights leaders with no plans of attending the event.

Mr. Reynolds, who served as an assistant secretary for the U.S. Department of Education’s civil rights office under President Bush, said in an interview he’d “love to work” with major civil rights groups, and leaders of some of those groups had been invited to be speakers but had not accepted.

The group’s Republican vice chair, Harvard University historian Abigail Thernstrom, also did not attend the meeting.

History of Discord

Mr. Reynolds explained that the Democrats on the commission were absent because of differences among commissioners on how best to uphold civil rights.

One factor in those differences, Mr. Reynolds acknowledged, has been his longstanding opposition to affirmative action. An uproar on Capitol Hill over the former assistant secretary’s affirmative-action views led former President Bush in 2003 to place him in the Education Department by means of a recess appointment.

But Mr. Reynolds said the disagreements also extend beyond that issue.

“The folks who embrace a traditional approach to civil rights feel uncomfortable with those [of us] who embrace their good policies, but also want to venture off in new directions,” he said.

But Democratic commissioner Michael Yaki said in a press release that Democratic appointee Arlan Melendez, Ms. Thernstrom, and he did not attend the conference because planners for it didn’t seek their input or the input or participation of prominent civil rights organizations. He said the conference topics “are extremely narrow and do not begin to address the issues raised in the 21st century, such as the immigration backlash on our Hispanic community, Islamophobia since 9/11, gay and lesbian rights, just to name a few.”

Mr. Henderson criticized the commission for not examining government accountability issues in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. And where the commission has weighed in on issues, he charged, it has weakened civil rights protections, not strengthened them. For example, he said, the commission didn’t support the reauthorization in 2006 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Of the commission’s current membership, four were appointed by former President Bush and the rest were appointed by Congress, explained Kenneth L. Marcus, a former staff director for the commission, in an interview. He said President Obama will have an opportunity to place some of his own appointees on the commission when the terms of Mr. Reynolds and one other commissioner expire in December.

The early work of the commission laid the foundation for landmark civil rights legislation such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Fair Housing Act of 1968.

Mr. Reynolds said in an interview before the conference that “the close relationship that existed in the early years between the commission and the White House died.”

He said the commission hasn’t been well funded by Congress. For the current fiscal year, the budget is $9.4 million, and it hovered between $8 million and $9 million over the past three years. And, while the Obama administration has trumpeted its intent to become more active in education-related civil rights issues, the commission’s profile has been much lower in recent years than it was during the civil rights movement.

‘External’ Factors

The discussion at the commission’s full-day conference focused on what speakers called “external factors,” such as discrimination, and “internal factors,” such as high numbers of African-American men who are absentee fathers, that have led to disparities between black and white Americans in their educational and economic success.

Panelists seemed to agree that the nation has made tremendous progress in establishing civil rights laws to combat external factors that impede the success of African-Americans, and they voiced strong support for the enforcement of those laws.

“Hardly anyone believes America has reached some post-racial nirvana,” said William Raspberry, a retired columnist for the The Washington Post and the keynote speaker. But at the same time, he said, “What we do as individual minority members and what we encourage our children to do matters a great deal.”

Mr. Raspberry said African-American parents do their children a disservice if they tell them racial discrimination, which he compared to a stream that needs to be crossed, is insurmountable. “There is racism out there, but there is also unprecedented opportunity,” he said.

Some panelists focused on what the federal government could do to support African-Americans in reversing what they viewed as the breakdown of the African-American family. Some said that before it was reformed in recent years, the federally backed welfare system provided incentives for women not to work or marry and helped to erode the structure of the black family.

Panelists said that federal officials can provide a platform for public discussion about the breakdown of black families.

James T. Patterson, a professor of history emeritus at Brown University in Providence, R.I., spoke before the commission about “the hailstorm of criticism” that Daniel Patrick Moynihan experienced when he wrote an internal report for the U.S. Department of Labor in 1965 called “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action.” Mr. Moynihan, a Democrat, served as a U.S. senator for New York before he passed away in 2003. His report, which was leaked to the press, said blacks had been mistreated because of racism. It also said that a “pathology” in low-income black families was impeding their economic success. As an example of that pathology, the report said that 25 percent of African-Americans were born out of wedlock at the time. It also characterized “black matriarchy” as a problem.

Mr. Patterson said Mr. Moynihan was called a racist and “hammered” by feminists. As a result, he said, the U.S. has endured decades of “nondebate or dishonest debate” about black families. Mr. Patterson also noted that the percentage of African-American children born out of wedlock has escalated to 73 percent since the Moynihan study, compared with an average of about 40 percent of all U.S. children.

Mr. Patterson cited President Barack Obama’s support of holistic educational programs as promising policies for combatting the breakdown of the black family structure.

As an example, he pointed to the success of the Harlem Children’s Zone, which provides low-income families in Harlem with social and educational programs from before children are born through their school careers. He noted that the Obama administration has pushed for funding to create similar programs throughout the nation.

Another speaker, Roger Clegg, the president and general counsel of the Center for Equal Opportunity, in Falls Church, Va., characterized the high rate of out-of-wedlock births among African-Americans as the “number one, huge domestic policy issue in the United States.”

He characterized the problem as a “moral problem” and said “churches, particularly African-American churches, are going to have to step up to the plate on this.”

Meanwhile Roy L. Brooks, a law professor at the University of San Diego, provided a different perspective. He stressed that racial disparities can’t be explained only by social or cultural differences between blacks and whites. As evidence, he cited a statistic that, on average, college-educated black men receive an income of $25,000 less per year than their white counterparts.

After the panel about racial disparities concluded, Glenn M. Freeman, the chairman of the Nebraska advisory committee to the commission, approached a microphone and said he’d been “insulted” by the discussion about the breakdown of the black families. “We sit here and keep talking about the symptoms but not the problem,” he said. He said racial disparities exist because a majority of whites see blacks as “genetically inferior.”

The conference included a panel that featured possible solutions to combatting racial disparities through educational opportunities.

Robert P. Moses, famous for his work in the 1960s in fighting for the voting rights of poor black sharecroppers, spoke about his more recent efforts to use algebra and higher mathematics to put children from low-income black and Hispanic families on a path to economic success. Called the Algebra Project, the initiative he founded has shown through the improvement of participants’ test scores that “there is a way to reach through to these students.” He added, “It doesn’t matter about their family situation.”

A version of this article appeared in the September 22, 2010 edition of Education Week as Civil Rights Group Seeks a ‘National Conversation’


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