Bias Watchdog Awakes?

AMERICA has unfinished business in securing the civil rights of all its people. The nation has made long strides since the Supreme Court struck down school segregation in 1954. Jim Crow no longer rules the South, and blacks and other minorities have wider opportunities in education, jobs, housing.

But there's no room for complacency. Not when subtle discrimination continues to ghetto-ize many minority people into low-paying jobs and mean-street neighborhoods. Not when the gap between white and black average incomes is widening again. Not when, as a new study reports, a quarter of the young black men in the United States are under the supervision of the criminal justice system.

Against this backdrop we welcome the prospective revitalization of the US Civil Rights Commission. Though without law-enforcement powers, the panel once was the civil rights conscience of the nation. But in recent years the commission, formed by President Eisenhower in 1957 to monitor the fight for equal rights, has sputtered. This was due partly to partisan bickering that polarized the eight commissioners during the Reagan years, and partly, perhaps, to the ``compassion fatigue'' that has settled on many Americans.

Last fall there was even a question if Congress would reauthorize the commission. But Congress gave it two more years, and in recent months four new members have been appointed, including the first disabled commissioner (one seat remains vacant).

President Bush has appointed a new chairman, Arthur A. Fletcher, who, as an assistant secretary of labor in the Nixon administration, launched the Philadelphia Plan to counter discrimination in the construction trades. Mr. Fletcher's appointment is praised even by civil rights activists who remain skeptical about the commission's effectiveness.

There's work aplenty in stiffening America's commitment to equal rights for all. Let's hope that Fletcher can get the Civil Rights Commission back on track.

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