Some whales have vestigial legs because their prehistoric ancestors were land mammals. The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights is a vestigial leg on whale-like Washington. The commission has no serious function, other than to illustrate how far things have evolved. Its head is a black woman, Mary Frances Berry, who, like many antebellum plantation owners and today's civil rights lobby, believes blacks cannot cope with life in predominantly white America, that they are comprehensively victimized and must be perpetual wards of paternalistic government.

Berry, 63, was appointed chairwoman of the commission in 1993 by President Clinton. She has been on the commission since President Carter appointed her in 1980, perhaps to get her out of his Education Department, where she said we should not criticize Communist China's education policies for requiring students to "develop what they call socialist consciousness and culture." In 1982 she lamented that "a massive barrage of propaganda" by America's media caused blacks to misunderstand the Soviet Union's virtues, including "safeguards for minorities," "equality of opportunity" and "equal provision of social services to its citizens." She says that in the 1960s, the era of landmark civil rights legislation, blacks faced a "threat of genocide" that was "roughly comparable" to what Jews faced in Nazi Germany.

The Commission on Civil Rights has a $9 million budget but no enforcement powers. It is a megaphone, a hectoring institution. Berry was designed by nature for it. And notwithstanding her old enthusiasms for Communist countries, she strongly believes in private property. At least, she believes the commission is her private property. Hence the current fracas.

The eight-person commission has been split 5 to 3 in favor of Berry's worldview. However, a commission member died in 1998, and Clinton nominated Victoria Wilson to complete the member's six-year term, which expired Nov. 29. President Bush has nominated a black Cleveland lawyer, Peter Kirsanow, to replace Wilson.

But Kirsanow, former chairman of the Center for New Black Leadership, rejects the plantation paternalism of today's civil rights lobby (see paragraph one, above). So Berry insists that even though Wilson's certificate of service stipulates a November expiration date, Clinton really intended to appoint her to a six-year term. Berry, resembling George Wallace blocking the schoolhouse door, says U.S. marshals will be required to force Kirsanow onto the commission.

Berry also resembles another apostle of lawlessness in the name of civil rights -- Clinton. He breezily conceded that when Bill Lann Lee served two years as "acting" -- unconfirmed by the Senate -- assistant attorney general for civil rights, this was not done "in an entirely constitutional way."

Al Gonzales, the White House counsel, speaks of seeking an "accommodation" with Berry. Gonzales is new in town and unfamiliar with Berry's well-earned reputation for unpleasantness, which would cause blushes below deck in a troopship.

The Department of Justice says Wilson's seat on the commission is vacant, and is going to court against Berry, whom the liberal Washington Monthly listed in 1987 as one of five persons no Democratic president should hire: "Her bitter single-mindedness makes her not just unpleasant but incapable of guiding policy on difficult and controversial issues." In 1997 the General Accounting Office called Berry's commission "an agency in disarray, with limited awareness of how its resources are used," unable to "provide key cost information" and insisting that significant records documenting commission decision-making were "lost, misplaced or nonexistent." Berry's defense was that there was "nothing illegal."

The ramshackle commission was created in 1957, the year U.S. soldiers enforced the integration of Little Rock's Central High School over Gov. Orval Faubus's objections. Then, America actually had a severe civil rights problem. Today the civil rights lobby -- speaking of prehistoric vestiges -- continues to discuss blacks' problems in the anachronistic vocabulary of the civil rights movement. But the problems are mostly matters of social class. Consider: How much would the life chances of blacks in urban slums or rural poverty be improved if by the wave of a magic wand their skins were made white? Not much.

Last June, Berry's racism-is-everywhere-and-explains-everything monomania resulted in a 200-page commission tantrum that, mixing dubious anecdotes with preposterous statistical models, purported to prove widespread "disenfranchisement" of Florida's black voters in 2000. But President Bush still did not resign. America is hell.

When Berry goes to heaven (for her, the Soviet Union with China's educational system), her remains should be treated -- she should like this -- as Lenin's have been: preserved under glass as a reminder of the exotic fauna that once roamed through American politics.