Two members of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission have set off a furor by writing that civil rights laws are not meant to protect white males, but rather blacks, Hispanics, women and the handicapped, groups that have been discriminated against in the past.
The statement has triggered an angry outpouring from Reagan administration officials who responded that civil rights laws are intended to benefit all Americans.
In a statement attached to a commission study on a 1984 Supreme Court decision, commissioners Blandina Cardenas Ramirez and Mary Frances Berry argued that extending the protections of civil rights law beyond minority groups, women and the handicapped is "putting blinders on society concerning the tragic present and past effects of discrimination."
The Supreme Court had ruled in Firefighters Local Union v. Stotts that layoffs in the Memphis fire department should be made on the basis of seniority alone, disregarding an affirmative-action plan designed to raise the number of blacks in the fire department.
The Reagan majority of the eight-member civil rights panel applauded the decision as "a reaffirmation of the principle that race and gender are not proper bases to reward or penalize any person." The ruling, the study concluded, properly rejects the idea of "discrimination in order to remedy discrimination."
In their blistering rejoinder, Berry and Ramirez said: "Civil rights laws were not passed to give civil rights protection to all Americans, as the majority of this commission seems to believe. Instead they were passed out of a recognition that some Americans already had protection because they belong to a favored group; and others, including blacks, Hispanics and women of all races, did not because they belonged to disfavored groups. If we are ever to achieve the real equality of opportunity that is the bright hope and promise of America, we must not deny our history and present condition by substituting illusion for reality."
Administration officials leaped on the statement. One administration official called a reporter to cite it as evidence of "a new racism against whites."
A White House official called it "an outrageous invitation to new forms of discrimination. Are they saying they have a franchise on civil rights, . . . white men have no civil rights? All Americans have civil rights. There are no protected groups in the eyes of the Constitution. The law is colorblind."
The administration's strong objection to the idea of civil rights as the province of minorities and women comes, in part, because that idea is diametrically opposed to the Reagan position of "colorblindness" as the nation's ideal on racial questions. The administration position holds that society should not seek to make up for past discrimination with quotas, goals and timetables.
The administration has spoken out twice recently on behalf of the rights of white males.
In a speech to the Florida Bar, William Bradford Reynolds, the assistant attorney general for civil rights, said the courts and Congress never had endorsed even voluntary affirmative-action plans that prompt companies to hire and promote qualified blacks and women over equally qualified white men.
Reynolds said such affirmative-action plans may not stand up if tested in court, because giving preference to women and minorities amounts to awarding benefits on the basis of race or sex, and is done "at the expense of wholly innocent employes or potential employes."
The Justice Department is challenging 46 of 75 court-ordered affirmative-action plans that it has reviewed, asking that those plans be stripped of racial preferences that disadvantage white men.
Similarly, the president's 1986 budget proposal contains an analysis on civil rights that accuses the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs, under previous administrations, of hurting white male workers.
The analysis cites a study that said OFCCP had used affirmative action as a "tax on the employment of white males in the contractor sector . . . . White males bear the tax burden and their relative wages fall."
Clarence Thomas, head of the administration's Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, also criticized the Berry-Ramirez statement, saying it "is not true historically."
"The 14th Amendment offers equal protection to all Americans," Thomas said. "It didn't say ignore whites. It said treat everybody the same . . . . Nothing said push down whites with one hand and raise blacks up with the other hand."
Civil Rights Commission Chairman Clarence M. Pendleton Jr. said the Ramirez-Berry statement reflects a "reparations theory," which holds that white men should compensate minorities and women for past discrimination.
"They are suggesting substituting one form of discrimination for another," said Pendleton. "They want affirmative-action goals and timetables because it forces companies to recruit in a discriminatory fashion that benefits them."
According to Pendleton, companies begin to discriminate -- looking for minorities and women -- whenever they fail to meet their affirmative-action plans' hiring goals.
He said that approach made everybody dissatisfied. "White guys say you got your job because you are black," he said. "Black people say you got your job because you are black. You should get your job because you are good."
But Berry, responding to the onslaught of criticism, contended that civil rights laws were meant to speed equal treatment for minorities and women.
"Civil rights laws were passed with the purpose of seeing that people left out had their rights protected," she said."
Berry and Ramirez said the administration's antipathy for goals, timetables and quotas in the name of a "colorblind" society meant that the White House does not favor affirmative action and would allow companies to limit their efforts to stop discrimination at rhetoric.
"The civil rights laws that were developed by the Congress were made as a remedy for discrimination against blacks, Hispanics, women and the handicapped in our society," Ramirez said. "These are the groups that were treated unequally and laws were designed for those groups. I believe the effect of past discrimination and present discrimination weigh so heavily upon those groups in our society that the absence of remedies will exacerbate the differences that already existed. I don't want to leave that kind of society for my grandchildren."