Can the Reagan administration be serious about the appointment of the Rev. B. Sam Hart, the Philadelphia radio evangelist, to a seat on the U.S. Civil Rights Commission? Is the nomination of this obscure black minister who opposes virtually everything the commission has stood for evidence that the administration doesn't take the commission's work seriously?
That seems to be the consensus. But the context suggests there may be another explanation for this apparently bizarre nomination.
Suppose that you are a member of the influential conservative leadership who believes that what some of us call civil rights progress is in fact a distortion of the Constitution; that the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments, which conferred citizenship rights on former slaves, have been improperly stretched to include such notions as affirmative action; that the Constitution's commerce and taxation clauses have been misinterpreted by do-gooders to get the federal nose under a tent the framers hung with a sign rading "Reserved to the States."
Suppose, further, that you are confronted with a Civil Rights Commission whose raison d'etre is the advocacy of these constitutional "distortions." What would you do?
Might it not make sense to (a) dismantle the commission or (b) tame it by replacing its most effecive advocates with right-thinkers?
Clearly (b) would be better, if it could be done with care, since leaving the commission in place would come off as less of a frontal attack on civil rights, particularly if women and blacks still served as members. Can that be what the administration is trying to do?
Consider, for instance, that the liberal Arthur Flemming, former secretary of health, education and welfare, has been dismissed. So, too, has the pro-ERA Jill Ruckelshaus. Their replacements are both conservative blacks: Clarence Pendleton to replace Flemming as chairman, and anti-ERA, anti-homesexual-rights Hart to take the Ruckelshaus seat.
Still on the commission--so far, at least--are Mary Berry, former assistant secretary of HEW and a strong civil rights advocate; Rabbi Murray Saltzman, the liberal head of Baltimore's biggest Jewish congregation, and Blandina Cardenas, a former Head Start executive and the sole Hispanic on the commission.
But surely it wouldn't be difficult to find a politically conservative Jew to replace Saltzman, and, with Hart and Pendleton, both black, coming aboard, Berry, too, becomes dispensable.
I don't say that this is the Reagan administration's rationale, only that context suggests the possibility. The administration has suggested that it considers black civil rights to be the important charge of the commission, and that the other groups--Hispanics, women and homosexuals--have insinuated themselves, illegitimately, into the civil rights act.
As a matter of fact, that notion might well find support in much of the black community, where there has already been resistance, for instance, to the extension of the Voting Rights Act coverage to include Hispanics and to the treatment of white women as a "minority" eligible for special breaks under federal minority business and hiring programs.>
But the administration notion seems to be that even blacks should expect no more than the bare bones of citizenship rights.
Does that make the whole effort a racist ploy?
"I don't think it's helpful to think of them (key Reagan administration aides) as picking on one little group or another," said a black former official of the Carter administration. "I do think it's true that Strom Thurmond and Trent Lott and other right-wingers told Ed Meese to appoint Hart, since his being black and right-wing would help them. I know, too, that they have been trying to get a conservative black minister for the commission.
"But if you look at it from their point of view, they don't see themselves as being anti-black or anti-minority. They see what they are doing as an effort to get the government going in the way they think it ought to go, in the belief that the country will be better off.
"I think what they are trying to do is very dangerous. Their basic attitude seems to be that if they can turn things around, maybe women will go back home, gays will go back in the closet and the Hispanics will shut up and stop trying to Quebecize America."
>I wouldn't dispute that characterization, or the notion that the motivation may be more philosophical than racist. On the other hand, I'm not sure that it matters. The effort to return to constitutional basics--if that in fact is what is happening--still leaves minorities in the position of fighting battles that supposedly were already settled.
What matters, finally, are not motivations but results.