Special Report

A New Conversation on Civil Rights

There will be new life after Mary Frances Berry.

By 12.29.04

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When Mary Frances Berry left the U.S. Civil Rights Commission in early December, after 25 years as either vice-chairman or chairman, she did so without the anticipated bruising public fight. (The Bush administration apparently changed the locks on the Commission offices and reassigned the bank accounts.) Berry, whom new vice-chairman Abigail Thernstrom characterizes as "a remarkably divisive person," had a history of picking fights, and in fact took pride in it. The fights tended to devolve to a single issue: that Berry, representing all African Americans, had been discriminated against, and was going to get hers (and theirs) back.

Thus Berry rather remarkably discovered, when she took over as chairman of the loony-left Pacifica Foundation in San Francisco in 1997, that the Foundation's five stations were largely run and listened to by "white male hippies over fifty" (her own words). When Berry tried to impose her own personnel policies roughshod on Pacifica (even arresting one on-air personality…on-air), Pacifica gave her the boot, as detailed in "There's Something About Mary" in the June 12, 1999 issue of Slate.

No surprise, Berry's chairmanship of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission fairly guaranteed that Commission proceedings, procedures, and pronouncements would be stuck in a radical 1960s "two Americas" outlook.

THAT WILL ALL CHANGE UNDER THELEADERSHIP of newly appointed chairman Gerald A. Reynolds. Reynolds, 41, a black Republican, has served as an assistant secretary in the Department of Education's civil rights office. Ashley Taylor, a black Republican and a former deputy attorney general of Virginia, fills another seat on the eight-person commission. Thernstrom has been elevated to the vice-chairmanship. Vice-Chairman Cruz Reynoso, a former lieutenant governor of California, left with Berry. The Commission now has a conservative majority.

Thernstrom is a Harvard academic and author, with husband Stephan, of America in Black and White (Touchstone, 1997) and No Excuses: Closing the Racial Gap in Learning (Simon & Schuster, 2003). She looks forward to two developments from the newly constituted panel. The members will "take a hard look at the state of the current conversation about basic race, ethnicity, and gender-related issues." Where Berry excluded or outright silenced opposing points of view, Thernstrom says the commission will "look at the spectrum of writing on [civil rights], far left to far right. What kind evidence is out there for what kinds of statements?"

A particular sore point here is that the Berry-led Commission published a report, without the concurrence of its minority members (all statements are supposed to be issued unanimously), accusing Florida of intimidating black voters in the 2000 Presidential election -- this while the Commission itself did not interview a single voter who claimed to be intimidated.

By contrast, under new leadership, "I hope we'll bring a kind of open-mindedness to our inquiries, so that they're evidence-driven, rather than results-driven," Thernstrom says.

Second, Thernstrom raps the "hostile and critical press" for buying into the notion that there is "only one important issue" in civil rights, "racial preferences, otherwise known as affirmative action." Thernstrom is regularly identified as an opponent of affirmative action in the press. "I am not," she insists. "I support affirmative action in its original sense, which is aggressive pursuit of equality in hiring and admissions." She does not support affirmative action as currently defined, "which is racial double standards."

THERNSTROM CALLS AFFIRMATIVE ACTION "YESTERDAY'S ISSUE."

"Today's issue," she says, "is how we get to a level playing field by the end of high school. Today's issue is the K-12 generation that ends up with racial double standards." The Commission, Thernstrom says, needs to "start talking about why children of different groups aren't learning enough. I don't have any doubts about it, we can level the playing field. There's nothing wrong with the kids, there's something wrong with our educational system. Racial double standards camouflage the basic problem."

New chairman Gerald Reynolds, interviewed by Stanley Crouch for his December 6 column in the New York Daily News, said much the same thing.

"What we must investigate," Crouch quoted Reynolds as saying, "is what limits the quality of public education and keeps black and Hispanic students so far behind whites and Asians. We know the problems are not genetic. Is it teachers who are mediocre and sometimes incompetent, or is it lack of involvement of the students -- or both? I think it is both."

Reynolds added that "The violence in black and Hispanic communities is a civil rights issue as well, even though people don't want to talk about it as such. We need to find out the successful techniques that have worked across the country that will take black and Hispanic kids to the top as opposed to holding them at the bottom."

HACKNEYED AS MARY FRANCES BERRY'S inflammatory tactics had become, they nearly always assured sympathetic press. Her adherence to "yesterday's conversation" on discrimination fit the template of the mainstream press. At the end, the lordly Washington Post even tolerated Berry issuing statements only through a public relations agency.

That cozy voyage with the Commission will undoubtedly come to crash on two conspicuous rocks: The Commission now has a black conservative face, which much of the entrenched culture finds intolerable. And, by emphasizing the inequities of K-12 education, the Commission will find itself identified with the President's No Child Left Behind Act, a lightning rod for liberal criticism in politics and the press.

Given the heroic example -- no other word for it -- set by Commissioners Thernstrom, Russell Redenbaugh, and Peter Kirsanow over recent years, as they patiently wrote articles, issued statements, held meetings, and told the truth in the face of opprobrium and harassment, you have to figure the new Commission won't shy away from the battle.

That battle figures to change the national conversation on race -- a change long overdue. Some essential housekeeping has to come first. Berry has been accused by the General Accounting Office of mismanaging the Commission's $9 million yearly budget -- "an agency in disarray," the GAO called the Commission. Reynolds has said his first job will be to conduct an audit.

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About the Author

Lawrence Henry writes every week from North Andover, Massachusetts.