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An Uncivil Agenda: Race Commission Is Propagandistic, Say Two Members
By John J. Miller
If every product put out by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights displayed the scholarly rigor and intellectual candor seen in the dissenting statement attached this week to the panel’s recent report on the Florida vote, then perhaps the agency would be worth its annual price tag of $ 9 million. It would function as a sort of federal think tank on race relations, issuing fair-minded assessments of what may be our country’s most frustrating dilemma.
The dissent, written by commissioners Abigail Thernstrom and Russell G. Redenbaugh, calls the U.S. Commission on Civil Right’s report on the November presidential election in Florida “a dangerous and divisive document.” The Thernstrom-Redenbaugh statement is a blistering attack on the report that has consumed the commission all year. It offers strong evidence that there is a single solution to the commission’s troubles: complete abolition of it.
A Spiraling Commission
The liberals who currently control the commission generated headlines around the country earlier this month when they leaked a report claiming to have unearthed evidence of “widespread disenfranchisement and denial of voting rights” in the Sunshine State. Yet as Thernstrom and Redenbaugh show in compelling detail, this attention-grabbing report was merely “a partisan document that has little basis in fact.” When the commission was created in 1957, one of its fundamental missions was the investigation of voting-rights abuses. This made sense, given that so many blacks were denied access to the ballot box throughout the Deep South. But now—36 years after the passage of the landmark Voting Rights Act—the commission has botched its handling of the most important voting-rights controversy in a generation. Instead of performing its noble purpose, the commission has become an embarrassing farce.
The person most responsible for its downward spiral is Mary Frances Berry, its chair. She strongly supported Al Gore during the presidential election. When the result of that race was still uncertain, she told an audience, “We are either in a position in the next few weeks—those of us who believe in the cause of human rights near and far—of having to mobilize, nudge and use our elbows to make sure that Al Gore stays on the right path.” Right before President Bush’s inaugural, she declared, “The fundamental bedrock of our country has been torn asunder.” She also called Bush’s victory “a threat to our domestic institutions.” Berry nevertheless maintained that she was capable of leading an objective probe of the Florida balloting, where Bush narrowly defeated Gore and earned enough electoral votes to become president. Yet time and again, she has demonstrated herself unfit for the job. She recently compared Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Secretary of State Katherine Harris to “Pontius Pilate—just washing their hands of the whole thing.” This is a revolting comment, especially coming from a person who scheduled one of the commission’s monthly public meetings this year on Good Friday.
The Thernstrom-Redenbaugh dissent, 57 pages in length, is an exhaustive and devastating critique of the commission’s report. It also offers fascinating new interpretations of what happened in Florida, thanks in part to a detailed analysis performed by John Lott, an economist at Yale Law School. Berry’s Bogus Claim Lott, for instance, shows that there does not appear to be a statistically significant relationship between the share of Florida voters who were black and the ballot-spoilage rate. What’s more, he reveals that the incidence of ballot spoilage increased when a Democrat supervised the local election—and went up even further when that Democratic official was black. This is powerful evidence undercutting Berry’s claim that something akin to a racist conspiracy was afoot last fall. An honest report on what happened in Florida would have admitted what Lott found. But honesty is an endangered species at the commission, which has spent more than a decade rendering itself irrelevant to the civil rights debate. In 1997, the General Accounting Office labeled it “an agency in disarray” for a series of organizational problems that still lack a fix. When Bill Clinton announced that he would convene a new commission on race, he bypassed the one he already had—no doubt because even the political left believes the existing commission is a useless organ. With the Florida report, though, the commission has sprung back like a wounded animal, inflicting actual harm on American race relations. As Thernstrom and Redenbaugh note, “The shoddy quality of its work, its stolen-election message and its picture of black citizens as helpless victims in the American political process is neither in the public interest nor in the interest of black and other minority citizens.” This is worse than irrelevancy, and it’s final proof that the commission has outlived whatever usefulness it once had.
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