Posted on October 21, 2004

Redefining Rights in America

Abigail Thernstrom, Wall Street Journal, Oct. 18

Among the four Republican appointees to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, naïve hope springs eternal. We knew that at some point the commission staff would come out with a draft report on the Bush administration’s civil rights record. We didn’t realize just how bad it would be. Or rather, we imagined the worst, but it was worse than the worst we imagined.

The draft is entitled “Redefining Rights in America” — an allusion, obviously, to the administration’s alleged attempt to trifle with sacred rights. Almost no aspect of the Bush administration’s record escapes the scorn of the staff who authored the document. Among the topics covered: civil rights funding, voting rights, education, fair housing, environmental justice, and racial profiling. High stakes testing punishes students for “the system’s failure to teach.” The president has “shifted resources away from rent assistance for the poor and toward home purchasing programs for minorities.” September 11, 2001, prompted the institution of “regulations that facilitate profiling.” And so forth.

In invisible ink, all commission reports are stamped: “I’m Mary Frances Berry, and I approve of this message.” Ms. Berry is, of course, the chair, and she sets the agenda for the agency. Her primary goal since I arrived in January 2001: getting George W. Bush. The release of “Redefining Rights” a month before the election was surely no coincidence. Nor is it happenstance that since last April the commission has held four wildly partisan briefings on voter “disfranchisement.”

The 166-page draft on the president’s civil rights record was delivered to commissioners only nine days before our monthly meeting on Oct. 8. With a week’s notice, we learned that the report would be discussed at the meeting itself. At our request, Ms. Berry postponed that discussion. She didn’t mind waiting, she told a reporter, “since they [the Republican appointees] felt so strongly” that its release appeared election-driven. She could have added: Besides, I have nothing to lose by a delay.

The postponement cost her nothing. The report went up on the Commission Web site the day it was finished. There it stays, looking like an official, approved, and thus legitimate document by what a columnist on the SFGate — the online edition of the San Francisco Chronicle — ludicrously labeled an “independent, bipartisan commission on race matters.” And once posted, it got the media attention that surely Ms. Berry sought. The columnist described the work as “an indictment [of the president’s team] worthy of an outright F.” Other news reports did raise procedural questions, but attention is attention. The word was out to Bush-bashers across the land.

If the Republicans objected to the timing of the report’s release, they could have spoken up earlier, Ms. Berry has said. Funny lady. We didn’t know it was coming, since the calendar for the release of projects is totally unreliable. But, more important, protest lodged earlier would not have made a whit of difference. Even if a solid majority of the commissioners had requested a postponement, the finished report would have gone up on the Internet, where it would stay for an entire year, as bizarre commission rules (pushed through in May 2002) dictate.

Commissioners (or at least those on the political right) don’t know when the staff will complete a draft — or what’s in it. Protest is thus inevitably premature — until the draft report actually appears, at which point it’s too late. No peeking is the rule, and no access to those who are working on a project. Only on one occasion have I been able to have a conversation with staff. It was a waste of everyone’s time. Subsequent efforts on my part to monitor the progress of that report were met with silence, and it emerged untouched by Thernstrom hands. It’s not even marred by a footnote to my own work precisely on the subject of the report — namely, the racial gap in academic achievement.

Republicans on the commission are seen but not heard — to the extent possible. They’re in Siberia. An October 2003 General Accounting Office report to Congress put the point more judiciously, simply noting the very limited input of commissioners (in general) into agency projects. The media, understandably, tend to regard all commission reports, press releases and official letters as having been approved by the commission. Not so. I see press releases, with my name attached, after they have already been released. Most reports are now classified as staff documents, which require no vote of approval. The frequent use of that clever classification was seemingly inspired by the lengthy dissent Commissioner Russell Redenbaugh and I wrote in response to the commission’s 2001 report on “disfranchisement” in Florida — an unacceptable dissent that was, for all intents and purposes, suppressed.

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So, why not put such a wretched agency out of its misery?

Because radically restructured and with new leadership, the commission can do important work. If the president wins re-election, new leadership in 2005 is a certainty. The terms of both the chair and vice-chair will soon expire. With a new team should come transparency, accountability and scholarly reports that rest on hard data. Today, the framework for all commission reports is ongoing discrimination in an America little changed in recent decades. Tomorrow, the commission could help drag the national discussion on civil rights into the 21st century.

A revised commission could be a real gift to the nation. The national debate on race, especially, is polarized, ugly and ill-informed. It needn’t be. A truly legitimate commission using scholars to turn out first-rate work could play a unique role in American life and help close the appalling divide.

Ms. Thernstrom is a commissioner on the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. She is also a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and co-author of “No Excuses: Closing the Racial Gap in Learning,” (Simon & Schuster, 2003).