Rights commission head speaks bluntly

''Freedom is the frosting on someone else's cake And so must be 'til we learn how to bake.''

Clarence M. Pendleton Jr., chairman of the US Civil Rights Commission, often quotes the above words from ''Freedom'' by black poet Langston Hughes.

''What is it that makes blacks believe white Americans have statutory and moral obligations to monetarily accommodate blacks for what happened to their ancestors in slavery and in segregation?'' asks Mr. Pendleton, a black appointed as chairman of the rights commission in 1981 by President Reagan.

''To my way of thinking the obligation has been paid. We blacks have equal opportunity. Those who take advantage of it succeed.''

When the Reagan-appointed chairman of the US Commission on Civil Rights makes such statements, especially before college audiences, black people, or civil rights groups, he provokes angry retorts or questions. Typical ones, and Pendleton's responses:

What's wrong with affirmative action? It delivers jobs.

Affirmative action is a kind of a racial spoils system in America. Quotas and goals and set-asides are a numbers game. They often do blacks more harm than good.

Why not have class action to undo wrongs against blacks?

Blacks unfortunately assume ethnocentric exclusivity, a special position for allocation of social and economic rights. When blacks make such a claim, 17 special groups - gays, Hispanics, Asians, you name it - proclaim similar rights for themselves.

Why aren't civil rights laws enforced?

Civil rights law has given way to civil rights politics. Too many people confuse civil rights with social and economic needs. A job is not a civil right. But race should not be a criterion for getting a job.

Many civil rights advocates say Pendleton, the first black chairman of the 27 -year-old Civil Rights Commission, does not sound like a man who once headed the San Diego Urban League should. He, in turn, says many blacks want to be ''discriminated for, but not discriminated against.''

Pendleton smilingly defends the ''new policies'' of the reconstituted commission. In a November 1983 compromise between Congress and the White House, it was changed from a five-member body appointed by the president to an eight-member group, four named by the president and four by Congress.

Defending the reconstituted commission, Pendleton cites a discussion of new policies in New Perspectives, a recently inaugurated quarterly edited by Linda Chavez, the commission's staff director, and published as a forum ''for the expression of all points of view in the ongoing debate over how best to eliminate discrimination and its pernicious effects from our society.''

For example, William Bradford Reynolds, assistant attorney general for civil rights, in ''A Defense of the Reagan Administration's Civil Rights Policies,'' writes in the summer 1984 New Perspectives:

''Plainly, our civil rights legislation was not intended to address all the social ills in society. It was, quite clearly, individual-oriented in its thrust , not group-oriented. . . .

''Indeed, this is, in my view, one of the overriding strengths of our civil rights laws: They are not special-interest legislation but belong to all citizens and provide to everyone the same degree of protection against unlawful discrimination.''

The Civil Rights Commission supports this view, Pendleton says. It has initiated or planned studies to ''determine where the nation stands on civil rights,'' he says, in specific areas on which the commission has conducted studies. They include the comparable worth issue, involving alleged inequities between pay scales for female workers and as compared to males; the value of affirmative action to higher education; the record of the Reagan administration in enforcement of civil rights; the effects on minorities of political actions such as redistricting and at-large elections; and ''Contemporary civil rights issues'' such as violence against Asians and whether Eastern and Southern Europeans suffer from ''reverse discrimination.''

The commission's program is questioned by the Congressional Black Caucus, Hispanic Caucus, and Women's Caucus. In a statement titled ''What's Wrong with Rights Commission?'' Rep. Julian C. Dixon (D) of California, chairman of the Black Caucus, says the commission ''has pursued a narrow, not a national, agenda for civil rights.'' He charges the commission has abandoned fact finding, canceled public hearings, been inattentive to major developments in civil rights , and interfered with functions of state advisory committees. The Black Caucus has threatened to seek withdrawal of funding for the commission.

''Blacks have made progress under affirmative action in spite of dependency on the government,'' Pendleton acknowledges. But he adds, ''I don't like preferential treatment for any one group. The bottom line is this: Either we become part of the mainstream, or become separate.''

Pendleton, who often goads people to challenge his ideas, says, ''The problem students and all these people have with me is I'm black. They assume all we blacks should think alike. That's racism in and of itself. We all don't think alike.''

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