In February, the IWF organized a panel of experts from our National Advisory Board to examine how the US Commission on Civil Rights is betraying its mission. Once a useful and balanced source of facts, the Commission now largely promotes racial and gender preferences through controversial and dishonest reports. The following are excerpts from our program which was delivered to lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

Linda Chavez

I like to think of the US Commission on Civil Rights much as I do other venerable institutions such as the Works Project Administration (WPA). During the height of the Depression, the WPA was a very useful institution that created some wonderful buildings. In fact, today, we owe a great deal of what Washington, DC, looks like to the works of the WPA. But it served its purpose at a particular historical time, and it outlived that function.

In my mind, the US Civil Rights Commission is much like the WPA. It is an agency that was once necessary and useful, but has long since ceased to function as it was intended. The Civil Rights Act created the agency in 1957. It was formed with two purposes in mind: Its first and most important function was to monitor whether or not blacks were being denied the right to vote in the United States, particularly in the South. Its second purpose was to assess whether or not there was, in fact, discrimination against African-Americans and later on other groups, including Hispanics and Asians, because of their ethnicity or their race. In the early years, it served that purpose well.

In the 1970s, the Civil Rights Commission began to shift its focus and look at issues that were not directly related to enforcing civil rights laws. It covered everything from abortion to conditions in migrant camps, issues that were clearly not covered by the governing legal authority that created the Commission.

In 1983, when President Reagan appointed me director of the US Commission on Civil Rights, we began to examine whether or not racial preferences and quotas were consistent with the meaning of the Civil Rights Act. We conducted a number of studies on important issues such as comparable worth — comparing differences in income among various groups. Ours was probably the first and most comprehensive study of that issue in the mid-1980s.

But, the Civil Rights Commission has since reverted. Obviously, when the Clinton administration gained appointment authority, the composition of the commission changed. Not surprisingly the commission has in recent years, I believe, regressed to the kinds of positions that it took in the 1970s. The commission has become, once again, an aggressive advocate for race and gender quotas, thus promoting discrimination, not working to eliminate it.

Christina Hoff Sommers
American Enterprise Institute Fellow and Author

The United States Commission on Civil Rights has a distinguished history and has been aptly called the conscience of the civil rights movement in America. But in recent years, it seems to have lost its way.

In December, the Commission on Civil Rights met and voted to release a 200-page gender equity report, alleging widespread bias against girls throughout the educational system, specifically in math and science. It is inadequately researched, and continues to be biased against males, poor boys in particular. The commission has defined discrimination to include any educational outcome that favors boys. For example, when more boys enroll in computer camp or honors physics classes, that is evidence of discrimination and there are calls for government investigation, perhaps intervention. But when girls enroll in more honors English classes or go to college in far greater numbers, that raises no civil rights questions for the commission.

If the current report is acted upon, schools will soon be doing to honors physics classes and computer clubs what they have done to male wrestling and diving teams — eliminate them to achieve gender parity.

The commission, which is so sensitive to the alleged shortchanging of girls, seems to be completely blind to the deficiencies of boys in our educational institutions. Boys are behind girls academically. According to the Department of Education, American boys are a year and a half behind girls in their literacy skills, are less committed to school, and less likely to go to college.

This gender gap is most extreme in the case of African-American students. It shows up dramatically in college enrollment. African-American young women now vastly outnumber males in higher education. In 1994, for example, if you compare the total number of degrees earned by African-Americans, women earned 63 percent of bachelor’s degrees and 66 percent of master’s degrees. These are astonishing statistics. In historically black colleges women comprise 60 percent of enrollment and are 80 percent of the honor roll. And these disparities are worsening.

Because certain lobbying groups have been so effective in creating a false picture that girls are shortchanged victims, the serious and real problems of boys remain unaddressed.

Efforts to help boys rarely get off the ground. For example, in Prince George’s County, Maryland, there are several poor, mostly black, public schools. According to one school board member, many boys are at the “very bottom in every respect by every academic indicator and every social indicator.” To help such boys, the county organized a Black Male Achievement Initiative. Beginning in the early nineties, approximately 40 students met two weekends a month with a group of professional men for tutoring and mentoring. The program was popular and effective. But, in 1996, it was attacked by the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, which found that it discriminated against girls. The woman who chaired the Prince George’s County School Board was pleased: “The point here is that we’ve been shortchanging female students, and we’re not going to do it anymore.”

In conclusion, the commission badly needs oversight. It needs to change direction. Its research and policies are biased. The taxpayers who fund it are being poorly served but, more importantly, the children who are supposed to benefit from a fair and sound policy are paying a precious price.

Sally Satel, M.D.
IWF Science Fellow and Author

In addition to producing reports on alleged gender bias in our nation’s schools, the US Commission on Civil Rights examines health care issues. In its recent annual report to Congress and the White House, “The Health Care Challenge — Acknowledging Disparity, Confronting Discrimination, and Ensuring Quality,” the main question that the commission sought to answer was whether the Office of Civil Rights at the Health and Human Services Department (HHS) was properly enforcing anti-bias laws. The answer, in short, was no. Quoting from the report, “Racism continues to infect the health care system. For decades, HHS has failed to remove barriers to quality health care for women and minorities.”

Among the specific charges made by the commission are these: First, known differences in access to treatment for minorities and less aggressive treatment reflect subtle or not-so-subtle racial biases on the part of the health care system and/or physicians. Second, there is bias in the medical treatment of women, in the opportunities for women physicians and researchers, and in research on women’s health. Third, inadequate attention is being paid to promoting diversity in medical schools.

These allegations are either unsupported by data or explicitly refuted by documented evidence.

We are becoming preoccupied with the relative health and sickness of groups, rather than with working toward making all Americans as healthy as they can be. Higher rates of cancer in African-Americans, for example, have much to do with access to treatment and to the timeliness at which people are screened. We can’t fix this with civil rights legislation and enforcement agencies. We need more community outreach and health education. Health disparities reflect a combination of economic forces as well as knowledge about and attitudes toward health.

Patricia Hausman
Behavioral Scientist

All of us appreciate that Americans vary widely in their opinions about how to best ensure equal opportunity. But despite these differences, I think most would agree that any discussion of these issues must be conducted fairly, honestly, and with a measure of common sense. I suspect we would also find widespread agreement that if any agency should exemplify fairness and freedom from bias in all that it does, it is the US Commission on Civil Rights.

Regrettably, the commission’s most recent report deviates dramatically from basic principles of fair scholarship.

Officially titled Equal Educational Opportunity and Nondiscrimination for Girls in Advanced Mathematics, Science and Technology, it is the final report in a six-part series about equal opportunity in the nation’s public schools. For simplicity, I will call it the “gender report.”

I am focused on one question: Why did the commission approve a report charging that schools deny equal opportunity in math and science to girls despite possessing considerable evidence to the contrary?

This report’s immediate predecessor in the series is one on ability grouping in public schools, published just three months prior to the gender report. While the gender report accuses guidance counselors of “steering” girls away from math and science, the ability grouping report suggests otherwise. It, in fact, states that, “In the 1990s, males and females have generally been exposed to the same learning opportunities in their course enrollments.”

According to the ability grouping report, gender disparities in higher level math and science course enrollments (in favor of males) have declined and in some cases have reversed during the 10-year period between 1982 and 1992. Consider some of the specific enrollment trends reported. These show that for algebra II, “the gender disparity in favor of females widened” in 1994, with females outpacing males by 7 percentage points in that subject.  Does this sound like a crisis for girls?

What most surprised me in the ability grouping report was a statement about eighth graders. It informed us that, “Despite similar math achievement levels between the two genders, a larger percentage of girls were enrolled in high ability [math] classes and a higher proportion of boys were enrolled in low ability classes.” This suggested discrimination not against girls, but boys. The commission not only failed to investigate this possibility, but proceeded with a report asserting, without basis, that girls are denied equal opportunity.

The result is a silly gender report advocating stepped-up federal intervention and policing of the nation’s schools to stop imaginary discrimination against girls in math and science. I suspect that taxpayers, particularly those who have sons or nephews, would appreciate an explanation for this. I would like to hear one myself. Until then, I will remain concerned that the authors of this report simply did not see fairness as part of the equation.