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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
Tomorrow, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights will hold one of its regular meetings here in Washington. As NPR's Ari Shapiro reports, the commission has staked out some controversial positions for an organization meant to advance civil rights.
ARI SHAPIRO: At a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing this week, Minnesota Democrat Al Franken asked what may sound like an obvious question: Is the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights working for or against civil rights? Then he listed some of the commission's recent actions.
Senator AL FRANKEN (Democrat, Minnesota): They include: one, testifying against the re-authorization of the Voting Rights Act; two, opposing by majority the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Act; and three, issuing a report questioning the academic and social benefits of school diversity.
SHAPIRO: Not typical positions for a civil rights organization. Maryland Democrat Ben Cardin added this about the commission.
Senator BEN CARDIN (Democrat, Maryland): Looking at its recent actions, it calls into question whether it is carrying out its intended responsibility.
SHAPIRO: President Eisenhower created the commission in 1957. It consists of eight members, each serving a six-year term. The commission held hearings on racial violence and discrimination around the country in the last century. Its findings helped shape the civil rights legislation of the 1960s. In the '80s, the tone of the panel started to change.
Mr. BILL YEOMANS (Law Professor, American University): And since then, it's really been a kind of a battleground for a partisan back and forth.
SHAPIRO: American University law professor Bill Yeomans spent 25 years working on civil rights at the Justice Department. He says the commissioners are supposed to be evenly divided between the parties.
Mr. YEOMANS: Its charter says that no more than four commissioners can belong to any one political party. Under the Bush administration, two of the Republican commissioners actually changed their registration to independent so that two more Republicans could be put on the commission.
SHAPIRO: Today the commission has four Republicans, two independents and two Democrats. So in theory, the commission is following the rules. In practice, three quarters of the members are reliably conservative.
I spoke with Gerald Reynolds, the commission's chairman, who is a Republican.
Do you believe that no one is gaming the system, or do you believe that people may be gaming the system, but that's not a problem?
Mr. GERALD REYNOLDS (Chairman, U.S. Commission on Civil Rights): I am a very cynical fellow. My assumption is that we will - if given an opportunity, Democrats and Republicans will each game the system.
SHAPIRO: Fair enough. Do you think that's a problem?
Mr. REYNOLDS: In this case, no I don't. I think that it is healthy that no one point of view dominates the commission for an extended period of time.
SHAPIRO: But apart from whether it is healthy, is it consistent with the intent of the commission's creators, who said no more than four people should belong to any one party?
Mr. REYNOLDS: I - that's - if there was a rule that says that the commissioners, thou shall not change party affiliations, I think that's problematic. I started out life as a Democrat.
SHAPIRO: Reynolds, who is black, believes the commission is offering a valuable dissenting opinion from the traditional view of what civil rights ought to mean.
Mr. REYNOLDS: If you use racial classifications in an attempt to benefit black Americans, certain Americans believe that that's okay. I think that we need to have a single standard in terms of discrimination. I think that that standard should be applied across the board.
SHAPIRO: And that philosophy leads him to oppose programs like affirmative action. Michael Yaki is one of the commission's two Democrats. He is playing defense against what he sees as the majority's efforts to roll back civil rights accomplishments from the 20th century.
Mr. MICHAEL YAKI (U.S. Commission on Civil Rights): And it's sad. It is anathema to what this commission had stood for. It goes against the mission statement put forth by President Eisenhower and reaffirmed through every president since. And it is therefore, to me, my solemn duty to do everything I can to make sure that they do as little harm as possible.
SHAPIRO: Two conservative commissioners' terms expire later this year. That means President Obama will have an opportunity to bring the ideological divide back to four on four.
Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.
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