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A Worm in the Big Apple


A Worm in the Big Apple

September 22, 2006

Hear the phrase "human-rights violator" and one usually thinks of Slobodan Milosevic or some other thuggish despot. In New York City these days, though, the phrase might apply to an advertising executive whose firm hasn't hired enough African-American managers or to the makers of an "insensitive" video game.

For this astonishing development, blame New York's Commission on Human Rights, an agency that investigates and prosecutes violations of the city's very liberal civil-rights laws. Such laws target not only racial and religious discrimination but bias against women, the elderly, the disabled, noncitizens, gays, ex-cons, the transgendered, victims of domestic violence, and other protected classes. And of course the commission interprets "discrimination" in the most extraordinary ways.

The half-century-old commission began with a push from New York mayor Robert Wagner Jr., who, at a time of little federal or state civil-rights enforcement, believed that a permanent city agency was needed to fight local racial and religious bigotry. For some years—especially after gaining extensive new powers during the mid-1960s—it energetically monitored discrimination in employment, public accommodations and housing. By the late '90s, it had nearly faded away. The vast majority of the several hundred or so cases that it heard each year had wound up dismissed either because they were groundless or because the plaintiff didn't show after filing a complaint. Most of the rest were settled for derisory sums.

But shortly after taking office in 2002, Mayor Michael Bloomberg boosted the commission's investigative and legal staff to 28 from 11 and tasked former city prosecutor Patricia Gatling with transforming the agency into a muscular law-enforcement office. Under Ms. Gatling, the commission has dramatically increased the percentage of cases in which it finds probable cause for prosecution and hiked both the number of cases settled and the average cash settlement. Each city borough now boasts a commission office staffed with—as the agency's 2005 annual report has it—"a dedicated team of Human Rights Specialists." Ready to serve your every human-rights need!

It's easier to find discrimination if you've got an expansive notion of it, of course, and the current commission has expanded its definition to the point of absurdity. Ask New York's advertising firms. In early September, the commission trumpeted that it had reached agreements with several top agencies, forcing them to recruit and promote more blacks. The companies, seeking to avoid fines of up to $250,000 and litigation, will set numerical goals—quotas—for increasing black representation, establish "diversity boards" and submit to three years of monitoring.

Naturally, the commission offers zero evidence that racism is to blame for minority "underrepresentation" in advertising firms. An advertising executive quoted in the New York Times gives a far more plausible explanation: "Minorities are targeted broadly by everyone: Wall Street, Fortune 100 companies. Your top minority students have lots of opportunities outside advertising." The notion that New York advertisers are bigots who won't voluntarily hire and advance qualified blacks is preposterous in this day and age. It's the commission's retrograde racial-preference mandate that's truly racist, since it likely will require the ad firms to hire certain job candidates--and reject others--simply because of their skin color.

The threat of a commission investigation a while back was sufficient to get Take-Two Interactive Software, makers of the video game Grand Theft Auto, to promise to remove an instruction—"Kill the Haitians"—from one version of the game. "I believe that this New York City-based company has gained a greater appreciation for the diversity which makes this city great," Mr. Bloomberg announced. You don't have to be a fan of Grand Theft Auto to find in such intimidation less protection of a human right than violation of the First Amendment.

The Commission on Human Rights doesn't just do law enforcement. It also seeks to educate the public by issuing ginned-up reports. A recent one was especially implausible. One remarkable thing about New York after 9/11 is how tolerant the city has been of its own Muslim community after fanatics, acting in Islam's name, destroyed the World Trade Center and killed thousands of innocent people. Read "Discrimination Against Muslims, Arabs, and South Asians in New York City Since 9/11," however, and you'd almost think the real victims of 9/11 are Gotham's Muslims, 69% of whom, the report reveals gravely, "believed they were the victim of one or more incidents of discrimination or bias related harassment" in the years since the attack. What's needed to end this injustice? You guessed it: lots more government activity, including the hiring of more Muslims for "public-service positions."

There are human-rights commissions in other cities—like San Francisco and Seattle—but New York's, under Mayor Bloomberg, has taken its mandate into new reaches of nanny-state bullying. What is more, the commission is unneeded. All sorts of antidiscrimination mandates are embedded within government statutes, programs and agencies—think only of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission—and the private tort bar stands ready to punish true instances of harm.

As it is, New York's Commission on Human Rights itself does harm: forcing private firms into quota programs, threatening free speech, and issuing nonsensical surveys that purport to find racism and bigotry where none exists. By doing so, the commission damages the harmonious "One City" it claims to desire and, just as important, trivializes the idea of human rights.