Wrong for Civil Rights

Wrong for Civil Rights

When Mary Frances Berry resigned as chair of the Commission on Civil Rights on December 7, the media’s harsh, fleeting spotlight on Berry’s purported combativeness distracted readers from the rea


When Mary Frances Berry resigned as chair of the Commission on Civil Rights on December 7, the media’s harsh, fleeting spotlight on Berry’s purported combativeness distracted readers from the real–bad–news: George W. Bush’s appointment of Gerald Reynolds as Berry’s successor. Reynolds, 41, a Kansas City energy company lawyer, had fifteen minutes of fame almost three years ago when Bush nominated him as assistant secretary of education for civil rights. Civil rights groups and advocates for women and for the disabled protested, appalled at the thought of Reynolds–fierce opponent of affirmative action, critic of the gender-equity law Title IX and of the Americans With Disabilities Act, and unqualified by any measure–occupying a visible civil rights enforcement post. But in March 2002 Bush made an end run around the confirmation process and appointed Reynolds while Congress was in recess.

Reynolds’s term at the Education Department expired in 2003. Bush avoided a reappointment fight, stored Reynolds in the Justice Department and then Reynolds returned to Kansas City to work, as he had before, as an energy company lawyer.

Gerald Reynolds has never litigated a civil rights case. Nor has he ever held an academic appointment in law, public policy or education. He possesses no record of scholarship on matters of jurisprudence, education or social policy. He has no sustained professional work experience in public education or in high-poverty communities. What he does have: a long history of calling civil rights leaders names while attacking civil rights laws and policies.

Congress created the Commission on Civil Rights in 1957 to investigate complaints and issue reports on civil rights matters. It was once considered the government’s conscience, respected even by opposing lawmakers. Under Berry, the commission had a 5-to-3 liberal majority. But with Berry’s replacement–as well as the appointment of the conservative black lawyer Ashley Taylor to replace progressive Latino Cruz Reynoso and the elevation of commissioner Abigail Thernstrom to vice chair–conservatives are on top with a 6-to-2 majority.

In 1997 Reynolds called affirmative action “a big lie,” a “corrupt system of preferences…that discriminate in favor of certain groups at the expense of others.” He’s derided organizations that brought us Brown v. Board of Education and the Voting Rights Act as a “civil rights industry,” questioned the appropriateness of Title IX and suggested that the Americans With Disabilities Act might stymie economic development in black communities. He’s also expressed suspicion about a widely used standard in civil rights law called “disparate impact,” under which seemingly neutral policies–such as high-stakes tests and zero-tolerance discipline–can come under review for having disproportionately negative effects on racial minorities.

Before his Education Department appointment, Reynolds was president of the Center for New Black Leadership. Despite its name, CNBL doesn’t train new black leaders. It advocates abolishing affirmative action and establishing “free market” solutions in education and fuzzily defined “personal responsibility.” During his tenure at CNBL, Reynolds testified against the appointment of Bill Lann Lee, President Clinton’s choice for assistant secretary for civil rights. Critiquing Lee’s work at the NAACP Legal Defense & Education Fund, Reynolds said, “For the last thirty years, traditional civil rights groups have used civil rights laws as a weapon to extract benefits for racial minorities and women, no matter what the costs.”

Reynolds’s appointment doesn’t require Senate confirmation. The commission has no enforcement power and, currently, little everyday influence. But his position vests him with authority to speak on behalf of a government agency and twist its founding purpose. When a right-wing ideologue gets to set the terms of public discussion about civil rights, we’d best restate what civil rights means: the recognition that racial discrimination played a central role in the development of this nation and its institutions; the understanding that past discrimination resonates in the present; the acknowledgment that millions of Americans, a disproportionate share of them black or Latino, endure in persistent poverty and in isolation from mainstream opportunity, and in conditions too brutal and pervasive for them to easily overcome solely on their own; the clearsighted conclusion that we’ve got far to go before there’s equal opportunity in America. And we’d better recognize what civil rights is not: an unregulated “free” market or shaming fingers pointed at racial minorities and the poor.

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