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Race and 'Rights'

By George F. Will
Friday, March 11, 2005; Page A23

In contemporary American politics, as in earlier forms of vaudeville, it helps to have an easy act to follow. Gerald A. Reynolds certainly did.

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 commission?

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Its $9 million budget 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 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 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 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 police officer, 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 Education Department's Office for Civil Rights under 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 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 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 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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