Wrong for Civil Rights

By Eaton, Susan | The Nation, January 10, 2005 | Go to article overview

Wrong for Civil Rights


Eaton, Susan, The Nation


When Mary Frances Berry resigned as chair of the Commission on Civil Rights on December 7, the media's harsh, fleeting spotlight on Berry's purported combativeness distracted readers from the real--bad--news: George W. Bush's appointment of Gerald Reynolds as Berry's successor. Reynolds, 41, a Kansas City energy company lawyer, had fifteen minutes of fame almost three years ago when Bush nominated him as assistant secretary of education for civil rights. Civil rights groups and advocates for women and for the disabled protested, appalled at the thought of Reynolds--fierce opponent of affirmative action, critic of the gender-equity law Title IX and of the Americans With Disabilities Act, and unqualified by any measure--occupying a visible civil rights enforcement post. But in March 2002 Bush made an end run around the confirmation process and appointed Reynolds while Congress was in recess.

Reynolds's term at the Education Department expired in 2003. Bush avoided a reappointment fight, stored Reynolds in the Justice Department and then Reynolds returned to Kansas City to work, as he had before, as an energy company lawyer.

Gerald Reynolds has never litigated a civil rights case. Nor has he ever held an academic appointment in law, public policy or education. He possesses no record of scholarship on matters of jurisprudence, education or social policy. He has no sustained professional work experience in public education or in high-poverty communities. What he does have: a long history of calling civil rights leaders names while attacking civil rights laws and policies.

Congress created the Commission on Civil Rights in 1957 to investigate complaints and issue reports on civil rights matters. It was once considered the government's conscience, respected even by opposing lawmakers. Under Berry, the commission had a 5-to-3 liberal majority. But with Berry's replacement--as well as the appointment of the conservative black lawyer Ashley Taylor to replace progressive Latino Cruz Reynoso and the elevation of commissioner Abigail Thernstrom to vice chair--conservatives are on top with a 6-to-2 majority.

In 1997 Reynolds called affirmative action "a big lie," a "corrupt system of preferences...that discriminate in favor of certain groups at the expense of others." He's derided organizations that brought us Brown v. Board of Education and the Voting Rights Act as a "civil rights industry," questioned the appropriateness of Title IX and suggested that the Americans With Disabilities Act might stymie economic development in black communities. …

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