Marty Castro Is First Latino To Lead Civil Rights Commission

The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights was once a leading force in setting the civil rights agenda for the nation. But in recent years, it has become something of a political battlefield. Host Michel Martin speaks with attorney Martin Castro — the new chair of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission — about its agenda, its future, and his own rise to become the first Latino to lead the commission.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

What's America's most pressing civil rights challenge? Some might say marriage equality for gays and lesbians, some might say discrimination against religious conservatives. Others might say it's the same old racial dynamic that has bedeviled this country for centuries. Answering that question is part of the daily task of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.

The commission's job is to investigate systemic discrimination by age, race, gender and disability. The commission also decides if federal and state law is working to protect all Americans equally. And now that group has a new leader, Marty Castro, who made history as the first Latino to lead the commission when President Obama appointed him in January and the full commission elected him as chair in March.

And he's with us now from Chicago Public Radio. Welcome, thank you so much for joining us and congratulations on the new post.

Mr. MARTY CASTRO (U.S. Commission on Civil Rights): Thanks, Michel. Thanks for having me. I appreciate it.

MARTIN: Now, why did you want to do this job, if I may ask? You're an attorney. You had a very successful practice. You also have a successful consulting practice. What made you want to do this job?

Mr. CASTRO: Well, I've always had as part of my personal activity, really rooted in my family tradition, taught to me by father and grandfather, who were very involved in our community, that you got to help those that you live with and that you - the communities that you come from. So I've grown up with that public service spirit instilled in me.

And even when I practiced law and the other things I've done in the private sector, I always remained very involved in civic as well as governmental and philanthropy activities. I've achieved the American dream and I wanted to make sure that others had it.

MARTIN: What do you think is the most important civil rights challenge facing this country? Clearly, this is something that a lot of people disagree on.

Mr. CASTRO: My personal view is that there are a number of priorities. You look at the number of what we call protective classes, those types of individuals that our mandate protects us, whether it's age, discrimination, race, national origin, gender. And then, you know, beginning to look at how that the issues of LGBT communities should be implicated in our mandate.

To me, every one of those communities has issues that are important to it. So I don't view one thing as being the direction, personally, that we should address. And as I've said to others, all of us have various elements of those protected classes. And we all have a gender. We all have a sexual orientation. We have a race and a national origin or ancestry.

So, we need to begin to look more at those things that bring those together, those commonalities, rather than the items that segregate us into different groups.

MARTIN: The country is diverse in ways that many people perhaps have not even considered before. And some cities, in particular, are - no one group is in the majority. They're, like, literally one-third, one-third, one-third. Or places like, you know, Hawaii or Houston or Dallas or parts of Texas where you've got, as I said, no one group is in the majority.

You've got, you know, perhaps whites might be one-third of the population, African-Americans a third, Latinos a third. And it sometimes is the case that these groups, even though we often all refer to them as, you know, people of color in the aggregate, they don't see themselves that way. They sometimes see themselves kind of competing with each other for, you know, political power, for, you know, economic opportunity and so forth. Does the commission envision a role in those kinds of conversations?

Mr. CASTRO: Well, you know, the commission itself as a majority hasn't taken a position on your question. But I can tell you personally it's those sorts of conversations about bridging divides between communities that I have been very involved in. My whole life I've been especially engaged in issues of bringing the Latino community and the African-American community together, the Latino community and the Asian community and the Jewish community.

And I know there's been a tremendous outreach effort recently at the national level at some of the conferences I've attended between the LGBT community and the Latino national organizations. So I think that it's extremely important that communities, as have been described in your question, begin to work together, especially when you look at the opportunity - the history of communities historically being played off against one another.

And I think that has led to many bad results. And I think going forward, particularly when you look at the census data, it behooves communities of color to begin to work together because we have so much more in common than we have that divides us. And many of us are going through the same challenges that other communities went through before.

You know, we're seeing right now a huge rise, I believe, in national origin and ancestry discrimination. And I think Latinos have a lot to learn from the African-American community and its civil rights movement in the '60s into how we address what is for, I think, the Latino community the new civil rights issue of this generation - that's immigration.

MARTIN: When you look back at your tenure, what will you consider a success? How will you gauge your success in this post?

Mr. CASTRO: At key points in our nation's history, in the 1960s, for example, during the Civil Rights Movement, the commission itself through its hearings and its reports was instrumental in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It was instrumental in the Voting Rights Act. And more recently instrumental in the Americans with Disabilities Act.

To me, the commission then was the nation's conscience on civil rights. So when I look back on my term, six years in the future, I hope that through my efforts and the efforts of my fellow commissioners, that the commission's status as a nation's conscience on civil rights is restored. And also to make sure that the commission truly functions in a bipartisan way and in a professional way.

MARTIN: Well, to that end, to that end, I mean the commission is designed to be bipartisan. And its current makeup, if I have this right, is three Democrats, including yourself, two Republicans and three self-identified independents. And even though it's designed to be bipartisan, it has been associated in recent years with, you know, some of the rankest, you know, partisan fights that we have.

I mean, most recently, the commission was in the news because of its role in the investigation of the Justice Department around the New Black Panther Party litigation. We interviewed one of the primary actors in this case on this program, J. Christian Adams, a former DOJ staff attorney who says that the department has not now, particularly the civil rights division, is not now acting in a manner that is race neutral, that it is indifferent to civil rights violation directed toward whites and Asians.

The department vehemently disagrees with that characterization and believes that this is a completely overblown case. In fact, that case, when it came before the commission, which ultimately did issue a report with a split vote, a 5-to-2 vote, there were raised voices. I mean it's my understanding that at some point, you know, one commissioner became so angry at the tenor of the conversation that he left the room.

You hear what I'm saying, is that in recent years there have been a lot of contentious fights before that commission. And rather than exemplify kind of a bipartisan consensus around these issues, has demonstrated the opposite. And so I'd like to ask you, do you agree with my assessment?

Mr. CASTRO: Well, certainly that's a part of the commission's history that I don't want to see repeated in the future. And my personal style of leadership is not one of confrontation, although I am obviously a very strong and partisan Democrat. And I think as you look at the makeup of the commission, you know, maybe the old labels of Democrat and Republican aren't the best to describe what happened over the last few years, is more conservative versus not conservative.

But nonetheless, what I hope to do is while we will often among the commissioners, based on our political philosophy disagree, on substantive issues, I think we can have a dialogue, and we've begun to do that already in our last few meetings, that puts forward our points of view, discusses our perspectives and takes a vote. And I don't think that we need be, and certainly under my leadership I will strive not to allow for that sort of rancorous result that you have described in your question. But having said that, you know, there are areas where we can look to agree.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're speaking with Marty Castro. He is the new chair of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. You rightly raise the question that divisions on the commission have not been solely about party affiliation, but also just about philosophy. And I'd like to ask you about the basic thesis put forward by J. Christian Adams and the other people pressing the case about the New Black Panther Party.

The broader issue for them, they say, is that discrimination against white people is not taken seriously. And you can imagine that as whites become the minority in some environments, that that will become a more pressing question. I'd just like to ask you how you think about that question.

Mr. CASTRO: Well, you know, I can't speak to anyone else's point of view and why they take it. But I can tell you what my perspective is. Every one of us is diverse. And that includes individuals, as you suggested, you know, the white community who is - who could be victimized by discrimination and unequal treatment, certainly, they have to be protected.

So for example, we recently - a majority of the commission recently approved a 2011 statutory report, which is a report we've prepared to Congress and the president that will be focused on peer to peer student violence and bullying. And we would look at instances where a white youth is being bullied because that student is white.

MARTIN: We're having a very vigorous debate in Washington, really, and across the country right now about what the proper role of government should be. And there are those who now say that a commission like yours might have been important, you know, 20 years ago, 30 years ago, 40 years ago, when discrimination, particularly on the basis of race or gender, was just rampant and, you know, overt.

But there are now people who would say that that era is no more and that commissions like yours really - just another way that the government kind of intrudes in the lives of citizens in a manner that would really be better if they just addressed these matters on their own. What do you say to that argument?

Mr. CASTRO: Well, you know, I wish they were right. I wish that there was no discrimination that took place in this country, in this day and age. But you know what? The truth is just the opposite. I chaired the Human Rights Commission for Illinois, where we're actually adjudicating individual claims of alleged discrimination. And I'll tell you, a lot of folks come to that commission and commissions like that across the country with valid claims of discrimination.

Folks also come with claims that are not - do not have a basis and we investigate those as well and determine they are or aren't. But I'll tell you, discrimination, unfortunately is alive and well in the United States today.

MARTIN: Marty Castro is the new chair of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. He was appointed by President Barack Obama in January and elected by his fellow commissioners as chair in March. He's also the president and CEO of a consulting firm in Chicago. It's called Castro Synergies. And he was kind enough to join us from the studios of Chicago Public Radio. Marty Castro, thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. CASTRO: Thanks, Michel. It was a pleasure.

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