The Magazine

Holding Holder Accountable

The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights steps up.

Dec 7, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 12 • By JENNIFER RUBIN
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The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights (USCCR) is in the news again, for the first time since then-chairman Mary Frances Berry tried to prevent seating a George W. Bush appointee. This time, though, it is challenging liberal civil rights orthodoxies, and Democrats and left-leaning civil rights groups are the ones in the crosshairs. Since January, the commission has been helping to fill the gap left by the lack of congressional and media oversight of a liberal administration. The commission, according to Kenneth Marcus, the USCCR staff director from 2004 to 2008, becomes more important "when the president and Congress are of one party and major civil rights organizations are aligned with them."

The USCCR is something of an oddity. Created in 1957 as part of the Civil Rights Act, it conducts investigations, holds hearings, and publishes reports--about four a year--on the key civil rights issues it decides the nation is facing. (Half of its eight commissioners are appointed by the president, half by Congress, with not more than four allowed from the same party.) It has a minuscule budget ($9 million) and no power to enforce legislation. As Marcus explains, "Its sole power is the power of the bully pulpit. .  .  . It is the power to shame."

Today a majority of commissioners favor a "conservative" view of civil rights--opposition to racial preferences and adherence to a colorblind vision of the Constitution--which they believe mirrors the original vision of our civil rights legislation. The USCCR's agenda includes voter fraud, the adverse impact of economic regulation on minority opportunity, school choice, and a number of other topics in conflict with liberals' civil rights agenda. The commission has lately opposed law school and state bar racial preference policies and exposed the lawless preservation of racial preferences in government contracting. The USCCR commissioned compelling research pointing to the deleterious impact of racial preferences on minority students pursuing science, technology, and math careers. And it just announced an investigation into the admissions practices of nonelite universities, which may in the name of "gender balance" be suppressing the number of female admittees. The issue has failed to attract the interest of the self-styled feminist groups, and it's no wonder. As Roger Clegg of the Center for Equal Opportunity wryly observes, if women's groups were to argue that gender should be irrelevant and women admitted based on their superior merit, "That's a slippery slope. If that's true for gender, why not for race?"

The USCCR's efforts are putting it in conflict with leftist civil rights groups devoted solely to expanding racial preferences. Commissioner Gerald Reynolds points to the commission's examination of a provision in the Democrats' health care plan that would encourage race preferences in medical schools in order to improve health care for minorities. USCCR research showed that instituting race preferences for medical school would not improve the health care in minority communities. "When you peel it back and analyze the issue," Reynolds says, "it is not [racial] disparity which has created the two-tier health system." It is "a non-sequitur."

The USCCR is also taking a major role in the high-profile New Black Panther party (NBPP) voter intimidation case. On Election Day 2008, members of the NBPP were caught on video threatening voters at a Philadelphia polling station. Department of Justice lawyers investigated and were poised to enter a default against the NBPP and three individual members. In May, though, Obama administration officials dismissed the case without explanation. The decision enraged legal groups and Republican congressmen, forcing an investigation by the Justice Department's Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR). But no congressional hearings are forthcoming, and doubts about OPR's rigor and independence have been raised. Republican representative Frank Wolf says that he is "not so sure OPR is really digging": "They are not really talking to a lot of people and about a lot of things."