Reynolds used school to further his improvement. His grades propelled him into the City University of New York and later to Boston University Law School. He has worked on antitrust law at the Justice Department and currently works as assistant counsel to Great Plains Energy Inc. in Kansas City, Mo.
Like another black conservative on the commission, Peter N. Kirsanow, Reynolds talks about education, almost mantra-like.
"The notion that you are unfit to serve unless you have marched, I think . . . can't be an essential qualification," said Gerald A. Reynolds.
(Rich Sugg -- Kansas City Star Via AP)
Gerald A. Reynolds
Title: Chairman, U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.
Education: Bachelor's degree in history, City University of New York, at York College; law degree, Boston University School of Law, where he served on the editorial board of the American Journal of Law and Medicine.
Family: Married; three children.
Career highlights: Assistant general counsel, Great Plains Energy Inc., Kansas City, Mo.; assistant secretary, Education Department, Civil Rights Office; deputy associate attorney general, Justice Department.
Pastimes: Currently trying, with his father's help, to restore his grandfather's 1952 Model A tractor. "We'll probably just mess it up," he said.
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"There is a gap in knowledge," Reynolds said. "You only need racial preference policies when you have a gap in the knowledge base, when whites come to the university and they are better prepared, with more knowledge. The fix is to make sure that black students get a better education."
His language is out of the Bush administration's brochure for the No Child Left Behind program, almost word-for-word.
As a black Republican who once ran the conservative Center for New Black Leadership in Washington, Reynolds is about as far from former commission chairman Mary Frances Berry as he can be.
Berry is a liberal who infuriated Republicans with her challenges to President Bush on everything from his election in 2000 to the impact of his civil rights policies in federal government, urban America and Indian Country. Berry's attacks were so unrelenting that even Reynolds pays her some grudging respect.
"One of the things I like about Mary Frances Berry is that she's tough, and she's a fighter," he said. "While I might not agree with her policy positions and the way she does things, I admire the fact that she has spirit."
But what will Reynolds fight for, and what will he do with a bully pulpit like the Civil Rights Commission? Reynolds does not give a definitive answer. Education is his specialty, but beyond that, he has yet to offer ideas about addressing issues in Indian Country or about attacks against Arabs, South Asian Sikhs and others. Immigration issues involving Latinos do not come up in his interviews.
Nevertheless, whatever he wants to do, the commission is his for the taking. In four years, the Bush White House transformed the board from a bastion of liberals to a bastion of conservatives.
Six of its seven remaining members are conservatives, including the chairman and the vice chairman, Abigail Thernstrom, who has said discrimination is no longer much of a factor in areas such as education.
Facing the prospect of dealing with the two, Christopher Edley Jr., the dean of the law school at the University of California at Berkeley and a liberal, resigned from the commission this month. In a letter to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who will appoint his successor, Edley said speaking his mind on the board might have hurt his standing, given his new role at the university.
But other statements in the letter are telling. "As I discussed some weeks ago . . . your appointee to the commission will almost certainly be in the minority on most disputed matters," Edley wrote. "It is imperative . . . that he or she feel unencumbered by other commitments that might make it difficult to speak and act effectively."
Civil rights commissioners speak and act all the time, often shouting, crossing their arms, huffing and arguing with furrowed brows. Conservatives say that was Berry's style, but it was also the style of one of her predecessors, Clarence M. Pendleton, the Reagan-era black Republican who railed against equal rights for women.
Reynolds said he is nothing like that.
"I have a particular point of view," he said, "and that point of view embraces part of the things represented by the traditional civil rights groups."
But, Reynolds said, "the notion that you are unfit to serve unless you have marched, I think that, well, in the not-too-distant future there will be no one alive who marched. That can't be an essential qualification, it just can't be."