Do We Need a Civil Rights Commission?
Scripps-Howard News Service 12.11.01
Mary Frances Berry who chairs the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights,
has decided to defy both the president and the Congress of the United
States - law and custom, too - in refusing to seat the president's
appointee for a vacant seat. She prefers to retain a commissioner
whose term had expired on November 29, but whose presence assures
her of the majority vote she has enjoyed since Clinton appointed
her in 1993.
As was the case with Bill Lan Lee - Clinton's Civil Rights commissar
at the Justice Department - America is being sent the message: stuff
your laws, stuff your customs.
But viewed another way, we could end up being thoroughly indebted
to Ms. Berry - that is, if we avail ourselves of the golden opportunity
and pose the question: why do we need a Civil Rights Commission
Established by Congress in 1957, the Commission on Civil Rights
reflected a growing national concern about the walls then still
separating black from white (legally in the South, practically in
many other places), and the continued denial of constitutional rights
to black Americans. During the decade that followed, monumental
steps were taken in the desirable direction. Legal remedy was applied
to every issue capable of a legal remedy. Even more importantly,
a constantly growing majority of Americans committed themselves
to the much more subtle, but equally essential, task of finding
the appropriate human remedies.
In a country of this size, in a society of this complexity, nothing
can be expected to happen without hitches and setbacks. But the
progress proved sufficient for most people of good intentions to
conclude that the Civil Rights Movement was over, because its purpose
had been accomplished.
That was not good news for those who had found the movement an
excellent source of prominence, power and - income. They wasted
no time to turn the movement into a permanent establishment. Didn't
every organization need a Civil Rights watchdog? And who could guarantee
that violations of an individual's rights, that discrimination against
specific persons, would not continue?
Why no one, of course. These things happen every day - always have,
always will. They happen to persons of all colors, shapes and sizes.
But, unlike in most countries, in America everyone is protected
by the provisions of the U.S. Constitution, and everyone has access
to the courts for relief.
Thus the case had to be made that "Americans" (I will
use quotation marks, because it never is clear who is meant by the
designation) are steeped in racism, are incurable, and need the
strictest supervision. Amazingly, "Americans," who had
just enacted the most sweeping package of legislation, demonstrating
the very opposite of what they were being accused, accepted the
And since militant feminism ran a quasi-parallel course with the
Civil Rights Movement, a natural alliance came to be formed to create
mutually supportive establishments. "Sexist" was added
to "racist" as a disease more incurable than AIDS. It
was only a matter of time before the steady invention and addition
of "disadvantaged groups" became an integral part of what
was by now the Civil Rights industry. In order to cover all bases,
the word "bigot" came to be applied to everyone who stood
in the way.
The other day, I watched the proceedings of the Civil Rights Commission
on C-SPAN. It took little time to realize that some commissioners
are in desperate search of projects with which to occupy themselves,
thereby creating and perpetuating divisions in our land. Others
arrive with a personal agenda, as the lady commissioner who announced
that she would start a project to protect the civil rights of persons
with language difficulties. Please!
"The opponents of civil rights will not stop their activities,"
Ms. Berry said, leaving it to us to figure out whom she had in mind.
Instead of looking for the most sinister interpretation, I will
suggest that a lifelong preoccupation with America's shortcomings,
errors and "crimes" has rendered her blind to the fact
that, compared with the rest of the world, she has been living in
Paradise. The unique preoccupation of Americans to do better, that
undergirds the Civil Rights establishment, has created an entire
cadre of people whom we are paying to eye us with suspicion, and
to pounce as soon as they think we stepped out of line.
Those who, like myself, grew up in countries with a political police,
find it hard not to see something of a parallel, all original good
But the main point here is that in the year 2001 no justification
exists to continue the existence of a Commission on Civil Rights
- indeed the entire watchdog establishment that pervades so many
of our institutions. Supporters of the Civil Rights Movement in
the 1960s, like myself, had a society of equals in mind. Ms. Berry
hardly has equal protection for all of us in mind. She, and others
in similar positions, cling to the belief that the Constitution
is still not being applied equally. True, but the other way around:
It is the very Civil Rights establishment that keeps demanding additional
rights, protection, and privileged treatment for some.
The time has come for all Americans simply to seek relief from
the courts if their rights have been violated. The time has come
to discontinue the practice of paying some Americans for watching
other Americans with suspicion.
The time has come to abolish the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.