Uncivil Rights Activists

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Uncivil Rights Activists

By John McWhorter

The Wall Street Journal | December 11, 2001

THE U.S. CIVIL RIGHTS COMMISSION is embroiled in a deadlock with the White House over the instatement of Republican Peter Kirsanow. Democrat Victoria Wilson was seated to fill out Judge Leon Higginbotham's term upon his death in 1998. Chairwoman Mary Frances Berry argues Ms. Wilson ought be allowed to serve a full six-year term, and in a commission meeting last week she resolutely refused to acknowledge Mr. Kirsanow as a member.

Ideological Conflicts

With Democrats in the majority, the commission has served Ms. Berry as an ideological fiefdom for years. Last spring she went so far as to push through a report charging that the black vote was suppressed in the presidential election of 2000, flagrantly dismissing the opposing viewpoints of members Abigail Thernstrom and Russell Redenbaugh. Since Mr. Kirsanow's appointment would split the commission evenly between Democrats and Republicans, Ms. Berry's ugly behavior last week was obviously driven in part by the prospect of grappling with ideological plurality.

But to view liberal black leaders' behavior as driven primarily by power concerns is to miss deeper ideological conflicts. And getting past the frustrating "race debate" in America will require that we parse these dissonances more closely. The true rub in this current fracas was actually revealed in a letter from Reps. John Conyers (D., Mich.) and Jerrold Nadler (D., N.Y.). The congressmen, with artfully restrained indignation, worry that Mr. Kirsanow's appointment could "deadlock the commission's work and neutralize it as an independent voice for civil rights."

Those words speak volumes. On first glance it sounds like the usual boilerplate. But note the assumption that to have the ear of a Republican administration is, by definition, in conflict with the "independence" of a civil rights commission. Under the Clinton administration the commission had six Democrats to two Republicans. Never did we hear that the commission was compromised in its "independence" in those days. On the contrary, for Ms. Berry and her allies, all was well.

Obviously, then, the congressmen's assumption, which Ms. Berry presumably shares, is that Republican politics are inherently incommensurate with civil rights. A few token Republicans is one thing, to maintain a façade of representativeness. But a Civil Rights Commission with as many Republicans as Democrats is "compromised," and a prospect to be resisted even at the expense of civility.

But the notion that Republican civil rights is an oxymoron is a mere symptom of our times, hardly a bedrock tenet of political philosophy. One of the ironies of the current contretemps between Ms. Berry and the White House is that Mr. Kirsanow is black. But for Ms. Berry, he is apparently not black in the sense she would consider authentic.

Mr. Kirsanow is a member of the Center for New Black Leadership, a Washington, D.C.-based organization presenting an alternative to the empty histrionics of those that fashion themselves the heirs of Thurgood Marshall and Martin Luther King. Black liberals often deride blacks opposed to the Jesse Jackson "uplift" model as sellouts – too naïve or opportunistic to see the cosmic truth in a victim-centered ideology. But few of these critics take the opportunity to examine the black conservative program, much less to consider that it squares better with improving the lives of black people than anything Ms. Berry and her ilk have ever proposed.

For example, the CNBL opposes affirmative action. Today, many have been trained to believe that such a view disqualifies a person as an advocate for civil rights. But one searches the statements and policy prescriptions of pre-1960s civil rights icons in vain for any call to disqualify black people from mainstream standards. And the CNBL's opposition stems from an awareness that such policies, while yielding material benefits and university placements for a few, are debilitating for the race in the long term.

Gerald Reynolds, former CNBL head and current nominee for the Education Department's civil rights office, puts it perfectly: "Racial preference policies do not increase the productive capacity of their beneficiaries. This type of dependence is the antithesis of freedom. Unless blacks have the values and skills needed to acquire material benefits without government intervention, they will forever depend on the kindness of strangers." It is difficult to parse that statement as unconcerned with blacks taking their place as equals to whites.

The CNBL has also supported welfare reform. Again, liberals tar this as an anti-black position. But too seldom do they engage a simple fact: It was exactly when the main federal welfare program – Aid to Families with Dependent Children – was deliberately expanded for poor blacks in the late 1960s that the most violent, hopeless inner-city sinkholes in the history of this country emerged in hundreds of American cities.

It is true that, before this, black poverty was prevalent (even more so than today), and blacks of all levels of society were well acquainted with concrete barriers to achievement. Still, the utter moral vacuums so familiar to us today were all but unknown in black America until the government began paying black women to have children out of wedlock. A black person who questions this welfare policy is far more committed to civil rights than someone that believes welfare reform is opposed to poor blacks.

Ms. Berry's battle against Mr. Kirsanow's instatement, then is partly a power play, but stems in a broader sense from an ideological conviction: that a Republican is by definition opposed to civil rights. Pointedly, Victoria Wilson's predecessor, Leon Higginbotham, made news in 1998 in opposing Clarence Thomas's right to speak before the predominantly black National Bar Association.

But Ms. Berry's vision of civil rights is one-sided. The CNBL's mission statement asserts itself as "a vigilant opponent of human bigotry in any form." It'd be hard to find a purer distillation of what civil rights is about. But the CNBL also observes that "full equality does not flow from the mere absence of bigotry," and that's where Ms. Berry's crowd get uncomfortable. However, the black elite of the early 1900s, regardless of political stance, would have been baffled by our modern civil-rights establishment, whose agenda is to furiously insist on blacks' right to be mediocre.

Defeatist Vision

In the 1930s, black lawyer Charles Houston (Harvard Law) and his young protegee Thurgood Marshall (Howard Law) stomped 10,000 miles through the South teaching black groups large and small how to work the legal system to ensure blacks' full access to representation and achievement in American society. This was, by anyone's definition, civil-rights advocacy. For Ms. Berry (University of Michigan Law), taking Houston's and Marshall's torch has consisted of a written oeuvre alerting black people to their powerlessness, followed by 21 years of using the commission as a pulpit for her defeatist vision to a wider audience. Her efforts have not improved the lives of a single African American.

What does Mary Frances Berry know about civil rights that Peter Kirsanow doesn’t?

By John H. McWhorter, a professor of linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley, is the author of "Losing the Race: Self-Sabotage in Black America" (Free Press, 2000).

-- Eve (eve_rebekah@yahoo.com), December 12, 2001


According to National Public Radio the following statement from the article

"Democrat Victoria Wilson was seated to fill out Judge Leon Higginbotham's term upon his death in 1998."

is not quite correct. She was given a full 6 year term, not merely the remainder of the other fellow's term. Apparently the rules say anyone replacing someone is treated as a full member with a full term of their own rather than merely filling out their predecessor's term. The commentator expected this to become a court case.

-- dandelion (golden@pleurisy.plant), December 12, 2001.

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