Do We Need a Civil Rights Commission?

Scripps-Howard News Service 12.11.01
Balint Vazsonyi

Mary Frances Berry who chairs the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, has decided to defy both the president and the Congress of the United States - law and custom, too - in refusing to seat the president's appointee for a vacant seat. She prefers to retain a commissioner whose term had expired on November 29, but whose presence assures her of the majority vote she has enjoyed since Clinton appointed her in 1993.

As was the case with Bill Lan Lee - Clinton's Civil Rights commissar at the Justice Department - America is being sent the message: stuff your laws, stuff your customs.

But viewed another way, we could end up being thoroughly indebted to Ms. Berry - that is, if we avail ourselves of the golden opportunity and pose the question: why do we need a Civil Rights Commission in 2001?

Established by Congress in 1957, the Commission on Civil Rights reflected a growing national concern about the walls then still separating black from white (legally in the South, practically in many other places), and the continued denial of constitutional rights to black Americans. During the decade that followed, monumental steps were taken in the desirable direction. Legal remedy was applied to every issue capable of a legal remedy. Even more importantly, a constantly growing majority of Americans committed themselves to the much more subtle, but equally essential, task of finding the appropriate human remedies.

In a country of this size, in a society of this complexity, nothing can be expected to happen without hitches and setbacks. But the progress proved sufficient for most people of good intentions to conclude that the Civil Rights Movement was over, because its purpose had been accomplished.

That was not good news for those who had found the movement an excellent source of prominence, power and - income. They wasted no time to turn the movement into a permanent establishment. Didn't every organization need a Civil Rights watchdog? And who could guarantee that violations of an individual's rights, that discrimination against specific persons, would not continue?

Why no one, of course. These things happen every day - always have, always will. They happen to persons of all colors, shapes and sizes. But, unlike in most countries, in America everyone is protected by the provisions of the U.S. Constitution, and everyone has access to the courts for relief.

Thus the case had to be made that "Americans" (I will use quotation marks, because it never is clear who is meant by the designation) are steeped in racism, are incurable, and need the strictest supervision. Amazingly, "Americans," who had just enacted the most sweeping package of legislation, demonstrating the very opposite of what they were being accused, accepted the proposition.

And since militant feminism ran a quasi-parallel course with the Civil Rights Movement, a natural alliance came to be formed to create mutually supportive establishments. "Sexist" was added to "racist" as a disease more incurable than AIDS. It was only a matter of time before the steady invention and addition of "disadvantaged groups" became an integral part of what was by now the Civil Rights industry. In order to cover all bases, the word "bigot" came to be applied to everyone who stood in the way.

The other day, I watched the proceedings of the Civil Rights Commission on C-SPAN. It took little time to realize that some commissioners are in desperate search of projects with which to occupy themselves, thereby creating and perpetuating divisions in our land. Others arrive with a personal agenda, as the lady commissioner who announced that she would start a project to protect the civil rights of persons with language difficulties. Please!

"The opponents of civil rights will not stop their activities," Ms. Berry said, leaving it to us to figure out whom she had in mind. Instead of looking for the most sinister interpretation, I will suggest that a lifelong preoccupation with America's shortcomings, errors and "crimes" has rendered her blind to the fact that, compared with the rest of the world, she has been living in Paradise. The unique preoccupation of Americans to do better, that undergirds the Civil Rights establishment, has created an entire cadre of people whom we are paying to eye us with suspicion, and to pounce as soon as they think we stepped out of line.

Those who, like myself, grew up in countries with a political police, find it hard not to see something of a parallel, all original good intentions notwithstanding.

But the main point here is that in the year 2001 no justification exists to continue the existence of a Commission on Civil Rights - indeed the entire watchdog establishment that pervades so many of our institutions. Supporters of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, like myself, had a society of equals in mind. Ms. Berry hardly has equal protection for all of us in mind. She, and others in similar positions, cling to the belief that the Constitution is still not being applied equally. True, but the other way around: It is the very Civil Rights establishment that keeps demanding additional rights, protection, and privileged treatment for some.

The time has come for all Americans simply to seek relief from the courts if their rights have been violated. The time has come to discontinue the practice of paying some Americans for watching other Americans with suspicion.

The time has come to abolish the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.