When the U.S. Civil Rights Commission National Conference opened this morning in Washington DC, not only were no civil rights groups present – but at least one sitting member of the body sat it out.
Commissioner Michael Yaki, one of only two Democrats on the supposedly bi-partisan commission, says conservatives appointed by former President George W. Bush have hijacked the event in an attempt to validate their politicized Civil Rights agenda before their terms end in December.
Yaki, an attorney from San Francisco and former member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, charges that the panel has organized the event in secret without any participation from the two Democrats and one of the Republicans who was critical of the way it was being handled.
"We were not told the dates, we weren't told what the topics were, we weren't told who the speakers were," Yaki told The Skanner News. "If you look at the way it was being addressed, when you think about civil rights in the 21st century, you have to deal with the new emerging populations and new issues that are confronting us."
A Conservative Coup?
Yaki and many critics are still outraged over the 2004 move that saw Bush, in an historic twist of the rules, successfully seat six Republicans on the eight-member panel, after two Republicans who had already been appointed changed their party affiliations to "Independent."
Effectively isolating the Commission's two Democrats, the move skewed the panel away from its traditional mission of watchdog for the Constitutional rights of underserved communities, and towards an anti-affirmative action partisanship.
Ever since, the Commission has made headlines and rocked social justice boats by releasing a string of reports calling for an end to affirmative action, Title IV for women's athletics, and government's role in policing institutional racism.
Conflicts escalated sharply in July when one Republican appointee, Vice Chair Abigail Thernstrom, told a reporter for Politico that her fellow conservatives on the Commission had openly discussed using the obscure case of a fringe group of Black nationalists to "bring (U.S. Attorney General) Eric Holder down" and damage President Barack Obama's credibility.
That group, the New Black Panther Party, triggered a right-wing media furor when a member stood outside a Philadelphia voting place on Election Day in 2008 holding a police-style nightstick.
After the Department of Justice investigated the group for voter intimidation, it brought charges against three individuals but eventually sustained an injunction only against the one toting the nightstick – touching off allegations that it "didn't want to protect the civil rights of white people."
In August, the Commission formally asked Congress for permission to sue the U.S. Department of Justice to force it to continue investigating the New Black Panther Party – a move widely expected to fail and which has drawn mainstream criticism of the Civil Rights Commission's agenda.
Discussing Its Own Demise
Today's National Conference should have included panels on immigrant rights, Islamophobia, gay and lesbian struggles for marriage equality and the right to serve in the military, Yaki says.
The Commission's website lists a sparse handful of panel discussions and lectures, including "The Role of Family Structure in Perpetuating Racial and Ethnic Disparities;" "New Tools for a New Civil Rights Era?" (asking the question, "If declining levels of present-day discrimination—accomplished through vigorous government enforcement—are unsuccessful at ameliorating current disparities, is it time to reconsider our tactics?"); and a closing panel, "The Future of the Civil Rights Commission" (looking at the questions of, in part, "…whether it is appropriate for the federal government to take the lead on such issues or whether the government body has outlived its usefulness, as some contend.")
The keynote speaker is conservative former Washington Post columnist William Raspberry.
Media contact for the event, Christina Bregale, did not respond to The Skanner News' request for comment.
"Its stunning lack of diversity is, I think, a testament to the fact that conservative majority just wants a conference in its own way, in its own light, that is not reflective of this country or the civil rights commission mission as a whole," Yaki said.
He decried the lack of involvement of staunch civil rights groups.
"I think what you're going to find is a lack of the traditional civil rights organizations that have been at the forefront of combating discrimination in this country," Yaki said. "You're not going to find the NAACP present, you're not going to find MALDEF (the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund) present, you're not going to find any of the Asian American justice groups present, I think that there is no representation from the gay and lesbian community."
Waiting for New Leadership
A press release Monday from Bragale, the conference organizer, says 200 attendees are expected Tuesday. Yaki said it's his understanding that the event cost about $100,000 to mount.
"I think they're spending a more than a hundred thousand dollars for maybe a couple hundred people showing up," he said.
"It's not to say that there aren't some good issues that are going to be addressed, but if it's going to be a national conference how can you not have issues that impact the Latino community? How can you not deal with the number one civil rights issue of our time, which is these anti-immigrant laws being passed throughout this country that have a disproportionate impact on our Latinos? How can you not address the phobia about Muslims that includes honest, God-fearing Americans in its wake? These are serious and important issues that we should be ahead of the curve – right now we're so far behind it," he said.
"I think that the best thing to do is just ignore the noise that these people are producing for the next six months and when President Obama has two new appointments that will even the odds on the commission.
"But I really think from now until December it's best to ignore everything that they do, because everything that they do right now I think is irrevocable tainted by a very partisan agenda."