New direction set by leader of reshuffled civil rights agency

''Many people confuse civil rights with social concerns - unemployment, poverty, housing, and other problems. Social problems and economic hardships have nothing to do with civil rights.''

That statement tells a lot about how Linda Chavez views the newly reorganized United States Commission on Civil Rights, which she leads.

''We deal with discrimination based on race, religion, or national origin,'' the commission's staff director says. ''We are not in the business of correcting social ills and economic problems. Our main job is the protection of the rights of minorities and women.''

Here, Miss Chavez says, lies the basic difference between the commission's philosophy and that of its critics.

Civil rights organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People say the new commission is molded in the philosophy of President Reagan: conservative, and low on energy in behalf of affirmative action and busing.

Mr. Reagan attempted to restructure the commission last fall, after it had issued several reports harshly critical of the administration's civil rights policies - particularly its lack of support for affirmative action and for busing to desegregate public schools. Critics have been concerned that the new commission, acting under pressures from the President, would reverse many of the rights won since the commission's inception in 1957.

But there will be no ''radical reversal of policies of the old civil rights commission,'' Miss Chavez says. ''No minority person nor woman should fear for their civil rights. The new civil rights commission is just as determined as the old commission to protect the rights of minorities and women.''

At its first session, the new commission approved a statement affirming that it is ''independent of all outside wishes or pressures, whether they come from the White House or any other group.'' Its independence is ''uncompromisable,'' the commission declared, and it serves ''no political ideology or special interest.''

The new commission has met twice, in a two-day reorganization retreat in January, and in its first regular monthly session March 5. It adopted a basic program for fiscal year 1984:

* Immediate action on proposals for two studies: (1) the issue of comparable worth of men and women in the work force, defining more clearly the question of ''equal pay for equal work'' for women; (2) the desegregation of schools.

* Plans for other studies in the future: employment of Americans of East- and South-European ancestry; redistricting to ensure ''one-man, one-vote'' for minorities; an update of the 1978 Social Indicators of Equality for Minorities and Women Report; and affirmative action in higher education.

* Preliminary action on such projects as an equal credit opportunity hearing; creation of a new voting-rights pamphlet; a study of state and local civil rights enforcement; and integration of Hispanic students in public schools.

* Lobbying in Congress for a stronger, amended Fair Housing Act.

In voting on various issues so far, the commission has generally split 6 to 2 . The two dissenters are the holdovers from the six-member body inherited from President Carter: Mary Frances Berry, a law professor at Howard University in Washington, and Blandina Cardenas Ramirez, an educator from San Antonio.

Both sued and won the right to remain on the old commission after President Reagan sought to purge it Oct. 25 by dismissing them and another member, Rabbi Murray Saltzman of Baltimore. Rabbi Saltzman did not seek to remain on the commission.

The original commission expired Nov. 30. Congress established a replacement, a new eight-member body that became official Dec. 1, with the President and Congress naming four members each. Congress renamed Dr. Berry and Mrs. Ramirez, and added Francis S. Guess, Tennessee state commissioner of labor, and Robert A. Destro, a member of the Catholic University Law School in Washington.

Mr. Reagan reappointed the commission's chairman, Clarence Pendleton, and named as vice-chairman Morris B. Abram, former president of Brandeis University. John H. Bunzel, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University, and Esther Gonzales-Arroyo Buckley, a high school science teacher in Laredo, Texas, were appointed as new members.

Dr. Berry and Mrs. Ramirez differ with Miss Chavez on the status of the commission. They assert that the new commission is the same as the old except for the number of members and the appointment of commissioners. Miss Chavez says the new group has the same basic mandate, but with some changes.

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