Carter and Civil Rights

PRESIDENT CARTER'S DECISION two weeks ago to use his new re-organizational powers to consolidate anti-job-discrimination programs now scattered among 18 separate agencies is an important step towards strengthening a series of civil rights laws enacted in the 1960s. The problem with those laws has been enforcement: there is presently a backlog of 100,000 unresolved job-bias cases and the diffused jurisdiction is in part to blame.

But while the effort to revitalize the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission (EEOC) is a commendable one, Carter's hyperbolic labeling of it as "one of the most important actions to improve civil rights in the last decade" gives reason for pause. Though he later modified this statement, it indicates a narrow view of the potential of creative civil rights legislation. Perceiving a bureaucratic adjustment of this kind as "major" leaves little room for the truly important civil rights reforms still left undone.

The New York Times recently ran a series of stories on the condition of civil rights in America in the ten years since the 1968 Kerner Commission reported on a "separate but unequal society." The Times concluded that the rift between black and white Americans still exists and might in fact have worsened. In terms of jobs, for instance, the prospect is much worse for blacks now than it was ten years ago, when the unemployment rate for blacks was only half what it is today. An estimated 40 to 50 per cent of young blacks in urban areas are out of work.

It is to this task that the Carter administration should turn its attention. The creation and passage of legislation in this vein needs the kind of weight behind it that Carter brought to bear for reform of job-bias agencies. Success in that effort might justify the Carter administration's horn-tooting.