Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Keeping His Eye on Civil Rights in Pa. New Leader of Human Relations Commission Gets Put to the Test

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Keeping His Eye on Civil Rights in Pa. New Leader of Human Relations Commission Gets Put to the Test

Article excerpt

Pennsylvania has a new top civil rights watchdog.

The Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission's new executive director, Chad Dion Lassiter, takes over at a time when issues of racial discrimination in public spaces have gained renewed attention.

In recent months, a high-profile arrest of two black men who were waiting for a business meeting in a Philadelphia Starbucks and an incident at a golf club in York County, where one golfer called the police on a group of African-American women golfers, both gained national attention.

The Human Relations Commission held an investigatory hearing earlier this month as a result of the golf club incident. The commission enforces state laws that prohibit discrimination and investigates complaints of discrimination in areas such as employment, housing, education and public accommodations.

The commission is "an incredibly important and critical mechanism" for civil rights in the commonwealth, said Gerald Dickinson, assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law.

Mr. Lassiter took over in May. He has a master's degree in social work from the University of Pennsylvania and previously worked as executive director of the Red Cross House with the American Red Cross of Eastern Pennsylvania.

He knows he has a big job ahead of him.

"The commonwealth has a lot of intolerance," he said in an interview during a visit to Pittsburgh last week to meet with commission staff and local leaders.

Additionally, the commission has had well-publicized struggles in recent years.

A 2014 strategic plan for the agency noted a substantial backlog of older cases, numbering in the thousands.

"Our agency challenges have persisted this year due to budget cuts and decreased staff," wrote the former executive director and interim chairman in the agency's 2017 annual report.

A federal lawsuit accused a former commission chairman of discrimination; he was removed from the commission by Gov. Tom Wolf in 2016. Reports in the Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News in 2016 told of turmoil at the agency from a combination of slashed budgets and staff, as well as, ironically, an atmosphere of discrimination, leading to fewer probable-cause findings in recent years. …

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