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George F. Will just doesn't get it, but then ...

most of his ilk (rightwing, conservative) don't.

George F. Will: Civil-rights panel a fossil
George F. Will

In contemporary American politics, as in earlier forms of vaudeville, it helps to have had an easy act to follow. Gerald Reynolds certainly did.

The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights' new chairman follows Mary Frances Berry, whose seedy career - 24 years on the commission, 11 of them as chairwoman - mixed tawdry peculation and absurd rhetoric.

Because Reynolds represents such a bracing change, it is tempting just to enjoy the new 6-2 conservative ascendancy on the commission and forgo asking a pertinent question: Why not retire the commission?

One reason to do so is that someday Democrats will again control the executive branch and may again stock the panel with extremists - Berry made unsubstantiated charges of vast "disenfranchisement" of Florida voters in 2000 - from the wilder shores of racial politics. Another is that civil-rights rhetoric has become a crashing bore and, worse, a cause of confusion: Almost everything designated a "civil rights" problem isn't.

The commission has no enforcement powers, only the power to be, Reynolds says, a "bully pulpit." And if someone must be preaching from it, by all means let it be Reynolds.

Born in the South Bronx, the son of a New York City policeman, Reynolds, 41, is no stranger to the moral muggings routinely administered to black conservatives.

But he says, "If you think I'm conservative, you should come with me to a black barbershop. I'm usually the most liberal person there," where cultural conservatism - on crime, welfare, abortion, schools - flourishes.

But about this commission as bully pulpit: Does anyone really think America suffers from an insufficiency of talk about race? What is in scarce supply is talk about the meaning of the phrase "civil rights." Not every need is a right, and not every right is a civil right - one central to participation in civic life.

Reynolds says the core function of civil-rights laws is to prevent discrimination, meaning "the distribution of benefits and burdens on the basis of race." He rightly says the core function of the civil-rights laws, which required "a lot of heavy lifting by the federal government," was to dismantle a caste system maintained by law. But that has been accomplished.

It is, as Reynolds says, scandalous that so few black 17-year-old males read at grade level; that so many black teenagers are not mentored to think about college as a possibility; that many young blacks are enveloped in the culture that appalls Bill Cosby, a culture that disparages academic seriousness as "acting white" and celebrates destructive behaviors. Reynolds is right that much of this can be traced far back to discriminatory events or contexts.

But this is a problem of class, one that is both cause and effect of a cultural crisis. It is rooted in needs, such as functional families and good schools, that are not rights in the sense of enforceable claims.

Civil-rights laws and enforcement agencies are barely relevant. Proper pulpits - perhaps including barbershops - are relevant. Government pulpits are not.

● George F. Will is a columnist for The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, DC 20071; e-mail: georgewill@washpost.com.
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