ARE CIVIL RIGHTS laws something special that protect only minorities, women and the handicapped? That's what two members of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights appear to be saying in a dissent filed with a commission study on affirmative action. Here's their exact language: "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 belonged to a favored group; and others, including blacks, Hispanics, and women of all races, did not because they belonged to disfavored groups."

The authors of this statement, commissioners Mary Frances Berry and Blandina Cardenas Ramirez, assure us that they meant only to identify the impetus behind passage of the great civil rights laws of the '60s. Certainly, these were adopted because some Americans were not being accorded the rights to which all are entitled. The laws were designed to provide remedies for these conditions so that every individual would be treated equally before the law. And the 14th Amendment, commonly understood to be the foundation of civil rights legislation, was adopted just after the Civil War, at a time when the rights of newly emancipated slaves were unclear. We can all agree on the historical accuracy of these facts.

This is not to say, however, that these constitutional provisions and laws do not apply to all Americans. The 14th Amdendment mentions no special groups. The statutes repeatedly use phrases such as "No citizen may be denied" and "Every individual has a right." Certainly white males can invoke civil rights laws. One recently and successfully fought his exclusion from a Mississippi nursing school by invoking Title VII. Others charged racial discrimination when they were laid off in order to preserve the jobs of minority coworkers.

Civil rights leaders for 120 years have sought to guarantee equal treatment for all citizens, not special rights for some only. For a time, public attention has properly been given to the needs of some groups because they have suffered discrimination for so long. But this does not diminish, and should not infringe upon, the rights guaranteed to others. It demeans the statutes at issue to regard them as mere compensatory laws or programs for preferential treatment. They are the affirmation of fundamental rights and values shared by all Americans and belonging to each.