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A Watchdog Muted

New York Times Editorial
December 14, 2004

The United States Commission on Civil Rights cannot legislate or regulate. What it can do is hold hearings and make a terrible racket if the government is not enforcing the laws of the land forbidding discrimination in voting, employment and housing.

The panel is a watchdog, exactly as President Dwight Eisenhower intended when he persuaded Congress to establish it in 1957. Mostly it has been run on a part-time basis by academics like the first chairman, John Hannah, then president of Michigan State; the Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, who was president of Notre Dame; and, most recently, by Mary Frances Berry, the Geraldine R. Segal Professor of American Social Thought at the University of Pennsylvania. The panel helped created momentum for the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965 and for the creation of civilian review boards to ease tensions between the police and minorities in the 1970's.

Watchdogs occasionally bite, of course. While some presidents have tolerated this, others have not - including President Bush, who has now appointed Gerald Reynolds, a conservative African-American lawyer, to succeed Ms. Berry as commissioner.

An equal-opportunity critic, Ms. Berry has harangued presidents of both parties for nearly 25 years. What finally did her in, apparently, was a 166-page report criticizing Mr. Bush's leadership on civil rights that appeared in draft form on the commission's Web site before the election. It was ultimately rejected by the commission's conservative majority, but Ms. Berry sent it to the White House anyway with a plea to Mr. Bush to "embrace the core freedoms and values enshrined in our civil rights laws."

Mr. Bush is unlikely to get such lectures from Mr. Reynolds, an energy company lawyer who briefly ran the Office of Civil Rights at the Education Department. Mr. Reynolds has described affirmative action as a "big lie," is generally opposed to preferential treatment for members of minorities and has said the civil rights groups overstate the problem of discrimination. This approach may make for warmer relations with the White House, but it hardly seems likely to keep the commission on the leading edge of the struggle for civil rights.

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