June 13, 2009

Mary Frances Berry’s 'And Justice For All' Calls For Change

I was on a conference call with Dr. Mary Frances Berry the other day. She is an American legend who currently serves as the Geraldine R. Segal Professor of American Social Thought and Professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania, where she teaches history and law.

Many villagers know Berry from her years as chair of the US Commision on Civil Rights. She now thinks that the Civil Rights Commission is outdated and needs to be blown up and re-started. She doesn't think that the current commission can deal effectively with issues like Torture, Immigration, Police misconduct, Marriage inequality, Educational achievement gap, Racial profiling and Hate crimes.

These tough and thorny issues populate a civil and human rights landscape that demands federal action, says Mary Frances Berry. Drawing upon a tenure on the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights that traversed five administrations, Berry maintains that the Eisenhower-era panel established as a federal watchdog is sorely out of step with today’s challenges.

Berry calls for abolishing the existing Commission and beginning anew with a more muscular body that can effectively respond to the clamoring for justice. In her recently released book, And Justice For All, The United States Commission on Civil Rights and the Continuing Struggle for Freedom in America (Knopf, 2009), Berry offers lessons for the Obama administration and Congress.

"There’s a whole new set of realities that need to be addressed, our conversation has to be about race, but also about gender, immigration, sexual orientation, disability, national origin and religious affiliation," says Berry, "We need a Commission that will vigorously fight for everyone’s right to be treated fairly because of their humanity."
New Vision for Commission - Berry’s vision is of a Human and Civil Rights Commission with greater independent power to investigate rights violations and demand corrective action.

"One of the Commission’s historic strengths has been that we’ve been an equal opportunity annoyance," declares Berry, of the independent panel. "We’ve angered Democratic and Republican administrations alike for exposing problems they wanted kept hidden and for giving a voice to the most vulnerable among us. A robust Commission needs to be able to enforce subpoenas without the president’s permission, regardless of who sits in the Oval Office."
Individuals and private organizations will have the power to file suit if an enforcement agency refuses to act on CRC findings within a specified time under Berry’s reimagining of the Commission. Berry also proposes clarifying the length of Commissioners’ terms and requiring Senate confirmation for those appointed by the president. Bitter legal battles erupted in the past when Commissioners (including Berry) and the White House fought over term expirations.

The current public outrage over torture demonstrates why we need a Human and Civil Rights Commission to scrutinize compliance with international human rights covenants, Berry insists. The existence of an independent and forceful Human Rights Commission to act as a watchdog on U.S. compliance can lessen complaints about the U.S. holding other nations to human rights standards that America does not observe.

The Last Five Years - Berry calls the present Commission virtually invisible and points to its silence on explosive issues including the police shooting of Sean Bell, the lack of funding for No Child Left Behind, the U.S. Attorney firings scandal, and the racially disparate treatment of Katrina victims.

By 2006, Berry argues, the Commission had even lost influence among their conservative congressional allies who ignored the CRC’s advice by overwhelmingly voting to reauthorize the Voting Rights Act. Many observers noted that the enormous turnout of African American and Latino voters in 2008 that led to the election of the nation’s first African American president would not have been possible without the Voting Rights Act.

Race in the Age of Obama - Berry offers a ringing dissent to the notion that the election of President Obama means we have become a post-racial society, and argues that his election makes a more universal and revitalized Human and Civil Rights Commission more possible.

"Obama’s success could inspire a renewed determination to end denials of opportunity in our society," she says. "Or it could also result in self-satisfied stagnation if people choose to tell themselves that the successes of Oprah Winfrey and President Obama prove that discrimination no longer exists."
A reinvigorated Commission with a bold mandate could also repair some of the damage to civil rights inflicted by recent Supreme Court decisions.

Race and the Roberts Supreme Court - The Supreme Court term that ends in June may radically transform our racial landscape. The Court heard three cases that are integral to civil rights: on affirmative action, mortgage discrimination, and Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.

"A reversal of Section 5 could be a potentially devastating blow for the protection of minority voting rights. If the Court hands down an adverse ruling we will need a revitalized and independent Human and Civil Rights Commission more than ever," Berry opines.
I enjoyed listening to Dr. Berry during the 1-hour conference call. Her deep commitment to issues of civil and human rights was self-evident throughout the call. During our conference call she suggested that the Obama Administration should appoint an envoy to deal specifically with the crisis in Darfur.

I plan to read her book. How about you?


Anonymous said...

Thanks very, very much for this post, Villager. Outstanding stuff and extremely informative. I'm definitely putting Berry's book on my 'must' reading list, and she makes what I believe to be some very valid points that apply not only to the Civil Rights Commission but indeed to much of the civil rights movement and perhaps even to organizations such as the NAACP.

Anyway, thanks much and great post.

Color Online said...

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Color Online said...

Failed to say, I will referencing and linking to this in the near future.

Again, well done and thank you.

Villager said...

Color Online - It is wonderful to see powerful bloggers from Detroit such as you & Keith visiting our humble blog. I hope that we earn your regular visits...