Why We Need a Human Rights Commission

The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights has been on the wrong side of every major human rights issue in recent years. We should scrap it and start over.

Mary Frances Berry (Getty Images)

When political leaders face urgent problems and a polarized public, a commission that honestly gathers facts and encourages a consensus is needed. Yet at a time when Americans are struggling to address torture, hate crimes, marriage inequality, police misconduct and racial profiling, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights is either silent or on the wrong side of every major human rights issue.          

The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights serves no useful purpose. Chairman Gerald Reynolds, a black man, publicly stated that he did not know of any discrimination problems. And the commission has ignored its responsibility to conduct field investigations before making findings and recommendations, while their recent activity reads more like a list of civil rights abuses than the work of a civil rights watchdog. The commission chose to ignore the disparate treatment of flooding victims after Hurricane Katrina and recommended abolition of the Clinton policy that saved minority contracting by the federal government. They announced that few if any benefits accrued to minority children from racial diversity in K-12 education just before the Supreme Court 2007 decision ending voluntary desegregation in Seattle and Louisville.

The commission asked the American Bar Association to abandon demands for racial, ethnic and sexual diversity among law school students after the Supreme Court upheld the University of Michigan Law School’s affirmative action admissions policy.

The commission had the audacity to oppose re-authorization of the landmark Voting Rights Act even though the commission’s 1965 recommendations formed the details of the law. They recently expressed opposition to legislation outlawing hate crimes. The commission consistently casts blame on the disadvantaged without positive recommendations addressing current needs or problems.

A courageous U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, founded in 1957, held hearings and investigations in local communities and worked with Martin Luther King Jr. and other leaders to achieve federal civil rights legislation. Today, again, we need a commission that will, as Eisenhower stated, “put the facts on top of the table,” in the struggle to achieve liberty and justice for all. Succeeding commissioners insisted that presidents enforce the laws, and they held investigations that led to the Age Discrimination and Americans with Disabilities Acts.