A Watchdog Muted
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
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.