Civil rights panel debates its future

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By Krissah Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 16, 2010; 9:24 AM

The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights is debating its own existence, again.

When the panel was formed 53 years ago, its mission was clear: to investigate denials of civil rights.

Today, its members disagree vehemently about what its aims should be, and some inside and outside of the group question whether it has any useful purpose at all.

The debate around the panel, which is credited with laying the foundation for important civil rights legislation passed in the 1960s, reflects the difficulty that many traditional civil rights groups face as they try to remain relevant.

"My view of civil rights is that the definition of civil rights is dynamic," said the commission's chairman, Gerald A. Reynolds, who spearheaded a conference this week that included a discussion about whether the agency should be dismantled. "I'm not devaluing discrimination or the importance of remaining vigilant. All I'm saying is we have to do that and do other things."

The biggest complaint from the commission's detractors is that it hasn't done much of anything in recent years. Its work consists largely of holding hearings and writing reports, but there have been fewer of those as the commission's direction has become more ambiguous in recent decades, with the emergence of a black middle class and the election of an African American president - along with persistent racial disparities.

Now it faces hard questions: Has the commission outlived its usefulness? Can it be redefined for a new era? Those issues are at the core of the future of civil rights groups and the country's ongoing debate about race. But the commission might be too mired in political fights to get to the answers.

Mary Frances Berry, a Democrat who chaired the panel for 11 years, says it has become a tool to further Republican goals and is "just wasting taxpayer money." It was created to be bipartisan and independent but over time has leaned toward one party or the other. The current commission includes six conservatives and two Democrats.

Berry and the heads of many traditional civil rights groups refused to attend a day-long conference this week on the topic of "redefining civil rights," saying she had "no intention of giving it credibility."

To which Reynolds, the session's organizer and a conservative appointed to the commission by President George W. Bush, retorted: "If we had the cure to cancer, they would say, 'No thank you.' "

The conference was an example of the partisan divide that exists around the civil rights debate, said Reynolds, whose six-year term ends in December. He organized the conversation around the role of family structure in perpetuating racial disparities and whether education reform can address those problems.

Berry, who has argued that family structure is much less important than economic situation, dismissed it as an old discussion "that has been taking place as long as I have been alive."

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