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Civil Rights Commissioner Says Attitude of Movement Must Change

Friday, 18 January 2002 12:00 AM

"Nothing profound really has been uttered in the name of civil rights since the death of Martin Luther King, Jr. over 30 years ago, and the reason is largely one of attitude," according to Commissioner Peter Kirsanow. "Martin Luther King, Jr. had an uplifting, inspiring attitude that resonated then as it resonates today."

Kirsanow told attendees of the Heritage Foundation's 2002 Martin Luther King, Jr. lecture Thursday, that all successful people have the attitude of a winner.

"But since Martin Luther King, Jr., the sounds that you hear emanating in the civil rights debate, have almost invariably been the distinct sounds of a loser," he declared.

Kirsanow, the author of "The Health Care Ghetto," says the rhetoric of today's civil rights leaders frequently is infused with defeatism, disillusionment, and a lack of optimism.

"Really, for this reason, the discussion about civil rights has been stale and stagnant," he concluded, "It presumes a permanent, and irreducible degree of racism in this country."

Conservatives who are active in civil rights issues tend to be more optimistic, Kirsanow says, because of the "many successes the country has made in the protection of civil rights" for all citizens.

He complains that even though almost, if not all, current and anticipated civil rights abuses can be addressed by existing legislation, current judicial precedent, or regulations, the discussion of civil rights continues to revolve largely around addressing grievances through legislative action.

Kirsanow says innovative approaches to protecting civil rights have been lacking for decades because the debate has been driven by a flawed three-pronged model of race-based preferences masquerading as "affirmative action," entitlement programs, and the view that rights belong to groups rather than individuals.

"You're effectively excluded from a discussion of civil rights, or at least lately you have been," he charged, "unless you pledge allegiance to the three-pronged model."

The Cleveland labor lawyer takes issue with the use of the term "affirmative action" to describe what are, in his opinion, race-based preferences. He does so while stressing his belief that no group is more committed to "true affirmative action" than conservatives.

"We believe strongly in affirmative action," Kirsanow said. "That is affirmative action as originally conceived and constituted before it metastasized into a racial spoil system consisting of preferences, quotas, and set-asides."

Real affirmative action, he says, involves assisting individuals who, by virtue of their minority status, have been left out of the economic mainstream or denied access to certain opportunities.

"But preferences," Kirsanow added, "whether in government contracting or school admissions, not only discriminate, but also promote discrimination against the very beneficiaries of such preferences."

Because the beneficiaries of preference programs know that they will not be held to the same standards as those they are competing against, he argues, they will have less incentive to improve the quality of their work.

"It's a cruel hoax," Kirsanow added. "It doesn't do anything but insure failure, promote resentment, and reinforce stereotypes."

He also questions the current call to "celebrate diversity."

"America's strength doesn't come so much from its diversity, but its unity," Kirsanow said. "And that's not been so powerfully demonstrated at any time than the aftermath of 9-11."

Dr. Matthew Spalding, director of Heritage's B. Kenneth Simon Center for American Studies, says Dr. King's message confirms Kirsanow's assertion.

"King's was not a world of moral relativism, but of self-evident truths and moral law," Spalding said. "When he spoke of his dream, he was appealing not to what divides us, but what we have in common, to the larger principles and ideals, which transcend our diversity."

Another failure of the three-pronged model, Kirsanow believes, is its lack of emphasis on individual responsibility.

"That's a matter of attitude," he said. "The truth is, advancing the condition of minorities in this country today is more dependent on advancing economic opportunities. Which is, in turn, a function of education. Which, in turn, is a function of community standards and culture. Which is, in turn, a function of the family."

In 2002, Kirsanow believes traditional civil rights issues are "only a fringe player" when compared to a vibrant and strong family unit.

"A strong family is not a civil right, but it is certainly a civil need," he argued. "I defy anyone to show me a race preference program with a similar record of success."

Kirsanow says now is the time to embrace a different attitude toward civil rights, the attitude of a winner. Fostering that attitude, he says, requires four fundamental changes:

- Abandon the three-pronged model of preferences, entitlement, and group rights; - Eliminate all racial classifications not justified by a compelling government interest; - Add personal responsibility to the civil rights equation; and - Vigorously enforce existing civil rights laws with all available resources.

"There's no doubt that there remains much to be done," Kirsanow added. "For the country to remain the greatest in the history of the world, we have to relentlessly make sure that we protect civil rights."

But he says that does not mean treating minorities like "losers."

"[Minorities] have a right not to be patronized, not to be treated in some paternalistic, condescending manner," Kirsanow said, "but as responsible, competent human beings, from whom excellence is an expectation, not a surprise."

He says if civil rights leaders would embrace such a change, the "spark" would return to the movement.

"We will treat each other as fellow Americans, not hyphenated Americans. We'll raise the bar high. We'll strive for excellence, not settle for mediocrity. And we'll judge everyone," Kirsanow concluded, quoting Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., "by the content of their character."

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Nothing profound really has been uttered in the name of civil rights since the death of Martin Luther King, Jr. over 30 years ago, and the reason is largely one of attitude, according to Commissioner Peter Kirsanow. Martin Luther King, Jr. had an uplifting, inspiring...
Friday, 18 January 2002 12:00 AM
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