“War is too important to be left to the generals,” the saying goes. Similarly, civil rights are too important to be left to professional advocates who champion only their own particular racial, ethnic, or religious causes. Unfortunately, in the “official” civil rights community of today a spirit of inclusiveness may be the exception, not the rule.
The exclusive, in-group nature of this community is manifest in civil rights investigations. For example, community organizers and activist law professors are the prime movers for the “fact finding” of state advisory panels to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, and their dominance crowds out other perspectives on civil rights issues. Nowhere is this more evident than in Chicago — the place where Barack Obama cut his teeth as a community organizer and law professor.
First, some context. Established in 1957, the U.S. Civil Rights Commission created State Advisory Committees. These committees report on issues ranging from “hate crimes” to immigration reform. One would expect the committees to seek out opposing viewpoints and to feature lively disagreements among members and witnesses who appear before their hearings. The final reports ought to reflect the range of views Americans hold on these issues, but raised to a higher level of research, fact finding, and deliberation.
Sadly, this has not been my experience.
Since my appointment in 2012 to the State Advisory Committee in Illinois, where I am one of 18 federally selected members, I have discovered that the focus of committee hearings — the basis of our reports — is nearly always on Chicago, as if civil rights stopped at the boundaries of a state’s largest city. In addition, witnesses consist almost exclusively of civil rights “careerists” — for example, community organizers of undocumented workers and allied law professors who hold clinics for the same constituents.
Furthermore, nearly all Committee members are likeminded to a degree that should alarm anyone who values diversity of opinion. Indeed, when I filed my first dissent two years ago — criticizing a report for failing to cite union opposition to Walmart as a reason for “food deserts” in poor areas of Chicago — the chair could not recall anyone ever filing a dissent and didn’t know how to proceed. Fortunately, after the dust cleared, my dissent was filed along with the final report sent to the national Commission.
Imagine the controversial issues a civil rights committee must deal with — and yet decades go by without any dissent! Such unanimity reveals a deep isolation from the lively policy debates occurring in the rest of America.
My committee’s latest report on immigration reform, published in December, illustrates the problem of listening to only one corner of America’s living room. As the sole dissenter, I noted how little our witnesses appreciated the legitimate concerns that shaped the bipartisan immigration reform bill the U.S. Senate passed in 2013. The report reflected the lopsided composition of our witness list.
First, the report criticized what it did not explain. Senate Bill 744 would have eliminated some family-based immigration visas and authorized more merit-based visas, a provision that reflects a longstanding criticism of U.S. immigration law: that it overemphasizes family and underemphasizes meritorious applications critical to American economic competitiveness. In 2012, both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney voiced this concern, but the Illinois Committee didn’t even consider it.
Second, the report stretched itself to find fault with hypothetical “disparate impacts” on LGBQT, women, and others. At one point, the report faulted the Senate’s merit-based visa provision because women have limited educational opportunities in the developing world. The report thus burdened any immigration reform with the impossible task of overcoming the world’s civil rights problems. Given such impossible standards, the logic of disparate impact would nix any immigration reform.
On Martin Luther King Day, it is worth noting that King understood the value of hearing opposing viewpoints. He contrasted his views not only with the virulence of the hardcore racists of his day, but also with the views of thoughtful civil rights advocates who disagreed with his confrontational street tactics. His vision was a major step forward that yielded a greater understanding of the potential benefits — and moral necessity — of a more inclusive society. In short, we became a better country for embracing differences of opinion.
King’s dream of a more just society is poorly served by ignoring viewpoints that disagree with our own. “A mind is a terrible thing to waste” — and now is the time to let differing minds engage on the contentious issues of our day.
Jonathan Bean is a research fellow at The Independent Institute and Professor of History, Southern Illinois University. He is the editor of Race and Liberty in America: The Essential Reader(University Press of Kentucky, with The Independent Institute, 2009).