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Revive U.S. Commission on Civil Rights

This country has made remarkable progress on civil rights over our history. We’ve moved from slavery to segregation to equal rights under the law. African-Americans have gained the right to vote, the right to equal employment opportunity. Open racism has become increasingly unacceptable. Gays and lesbians have progressed toward equal rights. Same-sex marriage is increasingly accepted in law and in practice.

Yet in the past years we’ve been presented with inescapable evidence of continuing systemic discrimination. Ferguson and many other abuses sparked the Black Lives Matter movement that exposed the systemic and too often deadly bias of our criminal justice system.

Liberals and conservatives alike have criticized mass incarceration of nonviolent offenders, disproportionately people of color.

The wealth gap between the races has increased dramatically, as African-Americans and Latinos were disproportionately targeted and victimized by the systemic fraud that led to the financial collapse.

Muslim communities have come under brutal assault from political candidates looking to scare up votes. As we’ve already seen in Arizona and Wisconsin, voting rights have come under the worst attack since the days of Jim Crow.

Governors across the country have refused to expand Medicaid, passing up on billions in federal money, with people of color disproportionately the victims.

We need to revive a powerful, independent Civil Rights Commission to act as an independent watchdog, not partisan, to report on these and other fundamental civil rights concerns and make recommendations to the Congress and the president.

The U.S. Civil Rights Commission was created in 1957 under Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower to provide a powerful, independent monitor of civil rights. Ike’s committee that recommended its formation concluded: “In a democratic society, the systematic, critical review of social needs and public policy is a fundamental necessity. This is especially true of a field like civil rights, where the problems are enduring and range widely (and where) … a temporary, sporadic approach can never finally solve these problems.”

The Civil Rights Commission’s early reports on voting rights and school integration had powerful effect. It played a major role in helping to define what became the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990. In 2000, it released a powerful report on police practices and civil rights in America.

The commission still exists but it has been weakened dramatically. Under Ronald Reagan, its budget was cut. Under George W. Bush, it became a partisan battleground, with conservatives seeking to turn it into a vehicle against affirmative action. It was stunningly absent from the debate on reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act in 2006.

Now it is a shell of its former self. Its recent reports — on police relations, school bullying and immigration detention — have received little attention. Its staff has been cut by more than half from its 1996 level. Its authorization has expired; it exists on annual appropriations that have slowly starved it of funds.

Progress on civil rights has always been contested. But leaders of both parties even in the 1950s and 1960s realized that a powerful, respected, objective monitor on civil rights could make a significant contribution in helping the country’s leaders and its people understand the challenges we faced and recommend reforms to address them.

Now we are deprived of that powerful voice. Everything seems reduced to partisan argument. Even where there is consensus, there is no authoritative, independent voice able to challenge both Congress and the president when needed. America is a remarkably diverse nation. Diversity can be our strength. Handled badly, it can rip nations apart, as we’ve seen in the impoverished, isolated and resentful immigrant communities in France and Belgium. It is time to revive an authoritative Civil Rights Commission.

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Jesse Jackson is the founder of Rainbow/PUSH.

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