Civil rights panel debates its future

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."

"That doesn't have anything to do with whether people are being discriminated against," she said.

There was not the same level of partisanship in the early years when the commissioners shared a kind of moral clarity about issues of race.

Established under the Civil Rights Act of 1957, the commission was given the force of the federal government and the power of subpoena to investigate cases of discrimination, and it provided some of the evidence to justify the use of federal enforcement to protect civil rights in the Jim Crow South.

Today, the commission's liberal critics complain that it became highly politicized during the Bush administration when two of his appointees changed their political affiliation from Republican to independent, tilting the panel's ideological balance.

The commission has also drawn ire from Democrats this year for turning its attention to the case of the New Black Panther Party, which members of the commission contend was mishandled by President Obama's Justice Department because of a disinclination to pursue a case of discrimination against white voters. Wade Henderson - president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, which issued a report last year calling the commission "so debilitated as to be considered moribund" - said that the New Black Panther investigation is a distraction.

Conservatives similarly criticized Berry for her attention-grabbing investigation into voting improprieties in Florida after the tight 2000 presidential election between Bush and Al Gore. The commission interviewed more than 100 people in 30 hours of testimony, which Republicans said proved nothing.

The infighting among commissioners has brought congressional threats to shut it down. Mindy Barry, a former Republican staffer on the House Judiciary Committee, which is charged with oversight over the agency, once called it "a complete waste of resources." She said this week, "It was a hard argument for me to go to my boss to talk about funding for the agency when all he knew the agency was doing was squabbling."

In the past two decades, the agency has seen significant budget cuts and now exists on about $9 million. Its staff is down from more than 250 employees in the mid-1980s to about 50. Five years ago, it laid off dozens of employees, ordered a staff furlough and closed two of six regional offices to save money.

Despite the shrinking resources, the commission is not going anywhere, Reynolds said. It will issue a round of reports before December, including its findings from investigating the New Black Panther matter.

The commission's conference this week - which was not attended by its Democratic commissioners or a Republican member who has been critical of the Black Panther investigation - brought together academics, nonprofit leaders and conservative civil rights activists who seemed to mostly agree that low rates of engagement by fathers and failings in the education system were a primary cause of black and white racial disparities.

Their conclusions were not far from the Obama administration's assertion that education is the civil rights issue of this generation or the president's promotion of a White House fatherhood initiative. Obama - whose father left his family when he was 2 years old - has said that having an absent father can lead children to drop out of school, abuse drugs and alcohol and live in poverty.

Reynolds acknowledged that the issue might be something Republicans and Democrats agree on, saying Obama "has on occasion waded into the issue in a thoughtful way."

The Obama administration will choose a new chairman for the commission at the end of the year.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company