Jewish World Review March 10, 2005 / 29 Adar I, 5765
Almost everything designated a civil rights problem isn't
The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights' new chairman follows Mary
Frances Berry, whose seedy career 24 years on the commission, 11 of
them as chairman mixed tawdry peculation, boorish behavior and absurd
rhetoric. Because Reynolds represents such a bracing change, it is
tempting to just enjoy the new 6-to-2 conservative ascendancy on the
commission and forgo asking a pertinent question: Why not retire the
Its $9 million budget about 60 employees and six field offices
is, as Washington reckons these things, negligible. So even Berry's
flamboyant mismanagement of it several Government Accountability
Office reports have said federal guidelines were ignored during her
tenure; another report is coming was small beer, even when including
the hundreds of thousands of dollars a year paid to the public relations
firm that mediated her relations with the media. But although the
monetary savings from closing the commission would be small, two
prudential reasons for doing so are large.
One is that someday Democrats will again control the executive
branch and may again stock the commission with extremists Berry
celebrated Communist China's educational system in 1977, when she was
assistant secretary of education; she made unsubstantiated charges of
vast ``disenfranchisement" of Florida voters in 2000 from the wilder
shores of racial politics. The second reason for terminating the
commission is that civil rights rhetoric has become a crashing bore and,
worse, a cause of confusion: Almost everything designated a ``civil
rights'' problem isn't.
The commission has no enforcement powers, only the power to be,
Reynolds says, a ``bully pulpit.'' And if someone must be preaching from
it, by all means let it be Reynolds. Born in the South Bronx, the son of
a New York City policeman, he is no stranger to the moral muggings
routinely administered to African-American conservatives. But he says,
``If you think I'm conservative, you should come with me to a black
barbershop. I'm usually the most liberal person there,'' where cultural
conservatism on crime, welfare, abortion, schools flourishes.
After working in some conservative think tanks, he became head of
the Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights in the
administration of the first President Bush. He is currently a corporate
lawyer in Kansas City, where he has witnessed the handiwork of an
imperial judge who, running the school system, ordered the spending of
nearly $2 billion in a spectacular, if redundant, proof that increased
financial inputs often do not correlate with increased cognitive outputs.
But about this commission as bully pulpit: Does anyone really think
America suffers from an insufficiency of talk about race? What is in
scarce supply is talk about the meaning of the phrase ``civil rights.''
Not every need is a right, and if the adjective is a modifier that
modifies, not every right is a civil right one central to
participation in civic life.
Reynolds, 41, says that the core function of civil rights laws is
to prevent discrimination, meaning ``the distribution of benefits and
burdens on the basis of race.'' But if so, today a perhaps the
principal discriminator is government, with racial preferences and the
rest of the reparations system that flows from the assumption that
disparities in social outcomes must be caused by discrimination, and
should be remedied by government transfers of wealth.
Reynolds rightly says that the core function of the civil rights
laws, which required ``a lot of heavy lifting by the federal
government,'' was to dismantle a caste system maintained by law. But
that has been accomplished.
It is, as Reynolds says, scandalous that so few black 17-year-old
males read at grade level; that so many black teenagers are not mentored
to think about college as a possibility and of SAT tests as important;
that many young blacks 68.2 percent are now born out of wedlock
are enveloped in the culture that appalls Bill Cosby, a culture that
disparages academic seriousness as ``acting white'' and celebrates
destructive behaviors. Reynolds is right that much of this can be traced
far back to discriminatory events or contexts.
But this is a problem of class, one that is both cause and effect of a cultural crisis. It is rooted in needs, such as functional families and good schools, that are not rights in the sense of enforceable claims. Civil rights laws and enforcement agencies are barely relevant. Proper pulpits perhaps including barbershops are relevant. Government pulpits are not.
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