Has the Commission on Civil Rights been compromised?

OPINION - Boasting a once glorious track record fighting for civil rights, the commission became a politicized Republican tool under George W. Bush...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

What does the United States Commission on Civil Rights do? Apparently not much in the area of civil rights anymore, unless you believe that black racism and anti-white discrimination are a big problem in America.

Stacked with ideologues by George W. Bush, the commission’s conservative majority decided recently to investigate the New Black Panthers and whether racial bias played a role in the Obama Justice Department’s decision to shut down the case against them. In its final days before Obama moved in, the Bush administration decided to go after the New Black Panthers for allegedly intimidating white voters at a Philadelphia polling place on Election Day in 2008— although the neighborhood is African-American, and the incident was minor and of little consequence. And the Bush administration’s decision not to seek criminal charges shoots down claims by conservatives that U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder was motivated by race in dropping most of the charges against them.

The Panthers’ case provides a perfect opportunity to take a look at the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, to understand its purpose, what it has accomplished in the past, what it is doing now and what we can expect from it in the future.

Formed in 1957 by Congress and signed into law by President Eisenhower, the Commission is an independent body designed to investigate, report and recommendations regarding the protection of the civil rights of citizens. It says on its website that “In furtherance of its fact-finding duties, the commission may hold hearings and issue subpoenas…for the production of documents and the attendance of witnesses at such hearings. It maintains state advisory committees, and consults with representatives of federal, state, and local governments, and private organizations.” Further, since the Commission does not have enforcement powers to fix specific civil rights problems it discovers, it refers many complaints to federal, local or state governments or private agencies.

In its early years, the commission played a key role in ushering in a civil rights agenda. It first investigated discrimination in housing and voting rights, and worked on the implementation of the Brown v. Board of Education decision. And the commission helped to pave the way for important legislation such as Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (which prohibited discrimination by state and local governments receiving federal funds); and Title VII (which prohibits job discrimination and established the Equal Employment opportunity Commission, or EEOC) and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Originally, the commission had six members who were appointed by the president and approved by Congress. And they were given lifetime tenure to ensure independence and non-partisanship. But then things began to change under President Reagan. In 1981, Reagan replaced four of the commission’s members with ultra-conservatives who ideologically opposed civil rights. He fired the commission’s liberal Republican Chairman Arthur Flemming, and replaced him with Clarence Pendleton, a conservative Republican who wanted to destroy the commission’s legacy. One of the other ousted members, Mary Francis Berry, proclaimed that the panel had become “a lapdog for the administration instead of a watchdog” for civil rights, and she was right.

Congress then rebuilt the commission, increasing its membership to eight, with staggered six-year terms. Four members would be appointed by Congress, and four by the president—with no more than four members belonging to the same political party. But this did not restore the body’s independence, it only resulted in the catastrophe for civil rights that the commission has become today.

Boasting a once glorious track record fighting for civil rights, the commission became a politicized Republican tool under George W. Bush. Bush stacked the Supreme Court and lower federal courts with right-wing operatives. And he created a BP-like disaster in the Department of Justice by filling its career attorney ranks with movement hacks and conservative ideologues, and graduates of Pat Robertson’s Regent University Law School. They focused on phony issues such as reverse racism, voter fraud and discrimination against Christians. J. Christian Adams—the career Department of Justice lawyer who testified before the commission and claimed to blow the whistle on Holder’s handling of the Panther case—was himself a Republican activist and Bush political hire.

Similarly, President Bush turned the once bipartisan independent commission into a 75 percent conservative-controlled GOP subsidiary by effectively appointing a fifth and a sixth Republican to the panel after two Republican members switched to independent. Only two Democrats sit on the Commission. The conservative majority is openly hostile to the civil rights movement and the rights of the true victims of discrimination. They even opposed the establishment of an Office of Minority and Women Inclusion in the recent Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act on the grounds that it would “require discrimination by setting overly optimistic goals that can only be fulfilled by discriminating in favor of the groups the goals are supposed to benefit.”

The Bush-appointed chair, Gerald A. Reynolds, is an African-American who is against affirmative action in college admissions. “I am not a civil rights activist” said Reynolds, who was once the head of a conservative group called the Center for New Black Leadership. Reynolds also worked with the anti-civil rights think tank, the Center for Equal Opportunity, and served on the national advisory board of Project 21, a black conservative front group that seems to oppose everything of benefit to the black community.

Commissioner Todd Gaziano, the Director of the Center for Legal and Judicial Studies at the Heritage Foundation, called hate crime laws “counterproductive.” He supports stripping felons of the right to vote, and said minority communities “ought to be most grateful.” Gaziano also claims that the Obama’s DOJ lawyers were ordered “Never bring another lawsuit against a black or other national minority, apparently no matter what they do.”

Peter Kirsanow, another black conservative on the panel and a supporter of Supreme Court Justices Roberts and Alito, has been called Ward Connerly’s evil twin and Bush’s pet commissioner. In 2002 he that “If there’s another terrorist attack, and if it’s from a certain ethnic community or certain ethnicities that the terrorists are from, you can forget civil rights in this country.” And Kirsanow and fellow member Gail Heriot referred to the Native Hawaiian Government Reorganization Act—which allows tribal status for ethnic Hawaiians—as a “racial spoils” system and “a train that needs to be stopped before it leaves the station.”

Where do they find these people, you ask? Well, this is typical of the Republican conservative strategy of stacking an agency they don’t like with people who are diametrically opposed to its mission, essentially killing the department by way of an inside job.

Michael Yaki, one of the two Democratic commissioners, said it is a “shame” that the commission has decided to “dismantle the civil rights program that exists throughout this country.” Yaki added that “The commission has been used as a tool by the right-wingers to legitimize taking far-out positions, because we still carry the brand of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, a bipartisan body that has been anything but bipartisan under their leadership.”

Even Vice Chair Abigail Thernstrom— a Republican appointee who has never been mistaken for a friend of Obama, black people or civil rights—seems reluctant to drink the entire glass of GOP Kool-Aid. She called the New Black Panthers case “very small potatoes” in the National Review, and told Politico that the commission’s conservative majority is out to get Obama: “This doesn’t have to do with the Black Panthers, this has to do with their fantasies about how they could use this issue to topple the [Obama] administration,” Thernstrom said. “My fellow conservatives on the commission had this wild notion they could bring Eric Holder down and really damage the president.”

How things have changed. In the 1990s, when I was a human rights advocate, I had the honor of testifying before the commission on the issue of police brutality and misconduct. There was an epidemic of police abuse throughout the country, particularly with black and Latino men who were beaten, shot and killed while in custody. Abner Louima, Amadou Diallo, Anthony Baez and Rodney King are but a few names that come to mind. The commission listened and took me seriously. Yet it is hard to imagine the commission tackling such weighty issues in today’s climate. Although the problems of racial injustice have not disappeared, the commission has zero interest in addressing these issues.

So, what does the future hold for the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights? Attrition is the key to ridding the politicized panel of its horrendous civil rights foes. In December 2010, President Obama will have the opportunity to replace two members whose terms will expire, a move which will begin the process of repairing a badly damaged commission. Only then will it return to fulfilling its important mission.