New rights agenda

It is disappointing to see the new direction of the reconstituted US Commission on Civil Rights. Certainly there is validity in scrutinizing effects of past actions aimed at ending discrimination, which is the commission's new focus.

But this should only be one part - and a small one, at that - of the commission's whole task. The larger segment should be addressing the nation's current and future civil rights needs; there is no evidence that the commission plans to do this.

For the past three decades, since the 1954 US Supreme Court decision overturning racial segregation in public schools, the focus of the nation's civil rights effort properly has been on relations between blacks and whites. Enormous progress has been made: Change has been produced in the laws and customs which for three centuries had restricted black Americans to positions of economic and social inequality.

But the nature of the nation's civil rights struggle now has changed. Today it essentially is in two parts - protecting the gains of the past by blacks and addressing new civil rights needs not envisioned a few years ago.

Blacks are particularly concerned that - in difficult economic times and as the national pressure for equality lessens - black workers will be the first fired when jobs are scarce. Just this month black workers won a court suit on this issue. A federal judge ordered the city of Newark, N.J., to restore 46 black and Hispanic firefighters to the city payrolls. They had been hired four years earlier in a move to end discrimination, only to be fired last month in a budget squeeze.

Blacks have similar concerns about housing and educational equality, especially with the recent decline in federal funds available as loans to college students.

The Civil Rights Commission ought to be looking at these questions. Beyond them, it also should be examining the nation's new civil rights issues. Hispanics and Asians are the new immigrants, the newest minorities. In some cases both have reported wide-ranging discrimination, from housing to employment. Their situations need examining, and Americans should know the facts.

A major national requirement, which broadly falls into the civil rights category, is to pay women on the same scale as men for doing similar jobs. Numerous studies have shown inequities, and many lawsuits are in process. Last month a federal judge ordered the State of Washington to pay at least $800 million in current and past wages to its female employees, on grounds the state had evidenced ''direct, overt, and institutionalized'' discrimination against them.

Just this week a census department study reported that in the decade from 1970 to 1980, the wages of women taking jobs for the first time fell further behind the salaries of men in their first jobs, despite the educational gains women had recorded in that time. Such evidence of an unequal employment footing for Americans should arouse the Civil Rights Commission to inquire into its causes and potential for redress.

One thing it should not do is get enmeshed in a political tit for tat and it is dangerously close to that now. In its initial meeting this Monday the commission fired back at Democratic presidential front-runner Walter Mondale for his comments the previous day that, if elected, he would replace the commission's Reagan appointees. The commission ought now to be, as in past years , able to operate independent of politics. Its welcome assertion Monday of independence from the White House should be matched by independence from this year's broader political skirmishing, which already has begun to focus in part on inequality of opportunity and treatment of minorities under the current administration.

It appears inevitable that the newly-constituted commission's first statement of purpose will be taken as a political signal. Some will see it as a retrenchment in civil rights by an agency that heretofore has been in the forefront of examining and voicing the nation's civil rights needs. Some will see it as a statement that the nation has gone far enough in providing civil rights to its minority citizens. And some will feel it is additional evidence that President Reagan, who appointed four of the commissioners, is not interested in the needs of the have-nots, or the disenfranchised in American society.

These are impressions the commission needs to correct. The way to do so is by broadening its agenda to include the nation's current civil rights needs.

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