- The Washington Times - Friday, September 10, 2010

When it comes to race, many groups insist on living in the past. Tomorrow’s conference by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, A New Era: Defining Civil Rights in the 21st Century, promises to offer a refreshing perspective on the controversial topic. The Justice Department would be well served by paying close attention.

In an interview with The Washington Times, commission Chairman Gerald A. Reynolds explained that there always will be a role for the federal government in enforcing anti-discrimination laws. “But I hope,” he said, “that people understand that the problems the nation confronted in the 20th century are different than the problems we have today. A lot has changed in race relations, with a tremendous amount of improvement.”

Mr. Reynolds suggested that activists and government officials today often act as if the active white-on-black discrimination so prevalent in the 1960s is, 50 years later, still the primary factor causing socioeconomic disparities. Such discrimination is a remnant profoundly worth guarding against, but broken families, unsafe schools and a felon population that has trouble getting jobs after release from prison all affect black achievement levels. “And there are other disadvantaged groups that need help, too,” Mr. Reynolds said. “In a lot of areas, it’s not the proper role for the federal government to take care of, but instead for local governments, churches and other community organizations.”

A distinguished lineup of speakers will explore the private sector’s role in addressing these problems. Former Washington Post columnist William Raspberry, winner of a 1994 Pulitzer Prize, will serve as keynote speaker for the conference. Mr. Raspberry returned to his hometown of Okolona, Miss., where he now runs Baby Steps, a program designed to help parents better prepare their children for success. Cornell University professor Robert P. Moses, a former activist with the leftist Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, also will speak. Mr. Moses founded the Algebra Project, which assists middle school students in making the transition from arithmetic to higher math. Roland C. Warren, president of the National Fatherhood Initiative, will explain his work to increase the proportion of children who are raised with “involved, responsible and committed fathers.”

A year-and-a-half ago, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. called Americans “a nation of cowards” on the subject of race and said “average Americans simply do not talk enough with each other about race.” Well, now the same Commission on Civil Rights that his department is stonewalling on the Black Panther case - and on related issues of race and law - is holding just such a constructive conversation. Given Mr. Holder’s divisive comments on the topic, it is unlikely he will participate in this constructive conversation. For the rest of us, it is one well worth having.