Chipping away at civil rights

Rather than just killing the messenger of bad news, shrewd politicians strike at the message itself. Last November, Ronald Reagan's replacement of activist Chairman Arthur S. Flemming of the United States Commission on Civil Rights with political loyalist Clarence M. Pendleton Jr. sparked charges that he was killing a 25-year-old tradition of messages about the persistence of discrimination and the laggard enforcement of civil rights laws. Subsequent events have only confirmed the gravity of this critique. President Reagan has not only ended the administrative ban against tax exemptions for segregationist schools (followed by a belated concession to seek some form of congressional remedy) but, more quietly, has sought to undermine voluntary affirmative action plans and weaken an extension of the Voting Rights Act.

Through six presidential terms, the Civil Rights Commission has been the single, consistent civil rights advocate in the national government. Presidents have generally spared the commission from usual tests of partisan allegiance, and its three chairmen (two of them Republican appointees) have responded with a commitment to the ideals of civil rights rather than the fortunes of political parties. Although a fact-finding agency with no executive authority, the commission has contributed to the framing of landmark civil rights legislation and has provided the only independent scrutiny of federal enforcement efforts.

Alone among federal agencies, the Civil Rights Commission has exposed the gap between rhetoric and performance on civil rights. In its initial 1959 report, the commission upbraided the Department of Justice for so laxly enforcing the Voting Rights Act of 1957 - the first federal civil rights law since Reconstruction - that in ''nearly two years,'' it ''had brought only three actions under its powers to seek preventive civil relief'' against voter discrimination. Noting that even concerted litigation would be ineffective ''against the prejudice of registrars and jurors,'' the commission also foreshadowed the administrative procedures later incorporated in the Voting Rights Act of 1965, now up for renewal.

The Civil Rights Commission has since monitored the performance of several dozen federal agencies with ''significant civil rights responsibilities.'' In a comprehensive 1970 report, it found that federal activities were ''characterized largely by inaction, lack of coordination, and indifference.'' The result was ''to virtually nullify the impact of important civil rights laws.'' In subsequent reports the commission has observed that progress in some areas has been marred by the continuing failure of government to maintain an adequate commitment to enforcing civil rights laws and regulations.

Today it is conveniently fashionable to detour demands for civil rights into debates over numerical quotas for minorities and charges of ''reverse discrimination.'' Yet commission reports show that, far from benefiting from preferential treatment, America's minority groups still confront disabling discrimination in such spheres of life as education, employment, housing, and justice. Mr. Reagan's new constraints on the government's role in civil rights promise both to freeze current inequities and produce substantial retrogression.

The circumstances of Mr. Pendleton's appointment, his loyalty to White House counselor Edwin Meese III, and Mr. Reagan's subsequent actions, all suggest that the President expected him to become an administration booster rather than a watchdog for civil rights. Reagan, moreover, also fired Vice-Chairman Stephen Horn in favor of Mary Louise Smith, a former head of the Republican National Committee. Then on February 9, he announced yet another appointment to the six member commission: B. Sam Hart, a black evangelist, known in civil rights circles only for his stand against homosexual rights.

That Mr. Pendleton and Mr. Hart happen to be black and Miss Smith female should offer little consolation to civil rights advocates. President Reagan's minority appointment practices recall those of the early 20th Century when Republicans sought to maintain their image as ''the party of Lincoln'' through token patronage to blacks who would neither challenge party policy nor press for minority rights. ''We do not belong to that group to whom nothing is desirable but the impossible,'' observed Charles W. Anderson, who, as a Collector of Internal Revenue, was the most important black officeholder of the Theodore Roosevelt era. Rather than fighting racial injustice, Anderson was content ''to provide (economic) opportunities for members of the race.''

Like black appointees of Anderson's time, Mr. Pendleton poses no threat to white, male America. ''I don't believe all minority progress comes out of a civil rights or social service gun,'' he has noted. ''The best way to help poor blacks,'' in his view, ''is not to be one.'' Nowhere in his agenda does there seem to be plans for combating the discrimination that minorities still routinely face in their everyday lives.

After the blaze of publicity in November, Mr. Pendleton's appointment remained in a state of suspended animation for nearly three months. Now that the White House has forwarded his nomination to the Senate, Americans still committed to civil rights need to monitor the confirmation process. Senate hearings can be an invaluable forum for airing concerns about the civil rights philosophy of both the nominee and his White House sponsors. Present indications are that the administration will continue to chip away at civil rights policies while folding all positive initiatives into an economic program that offers neither opportunites for minorities nor help in ending discrimination.

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