School & District Management

Civil Rights Group Seeks a ‘National Conversation’

By Mary Ann Zehr — September 20, 2010 3 min read
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The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights yesterday 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 and some commission 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 Washington-based 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 Republicans and two are registered Independents.

The two Democratic commissioners boycotted the Sept. 14 event and prominent civil rights groups did not serve on any of the day’s panels. The group’s Republican vice chair, Harvard University historian Abigail Thernstrom, also did not attend the meeting

“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 explaining why he didn’t attend the meeting.

Mr. Reynolds, who served as an assistant secretary for the U.S. Department of Education’s civil rights office under President Bush, said 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.

‘Narrow’ Topics

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 didn’t seek their input or the input 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, [and] gay and lesbian rights.”

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.

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 educational and economic success. 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 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 said blacks had been mistreated because of racism. It also said that a “pathology” in low-income black families was impeding their economic success. For example, the report said that 25 percent of African-Americans were born out of wedlock at the time, a percentage that Mr. Patterson said has now escalated to 73 percent. Due to the backlash to Mr. Moynihan’s report, the United States has endured decades of “nondebate or dishonest debate” about black families, Mr. Patterson said.

He cited President Barack Obama’s support of holistic educational programs, such as the Harlem Children’s Zone, which provides wraparound supports for children, as promising policies to combat the breakdown of the black family structure.

The meeting included a panel on possible solutions to close racial disparities through educational opportunities.

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

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A version of this article appeared in the September 22, 2010 edition of Education Week as Amid Discord, Civil Rights Group Tries to Chart an Agenda

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