Cancel Culture Comes to the Civil Rights Commission
AP Photo/Gerry Broome, File
Cancel Culture Comes to the Civil Rights Commission
AP Photo/Gerry Broome, File
Story Stream
recent articles

America’s culture wars are typically fought at our universities and on our streets. Among the countless other venues for battle, the federal bureaucracy and commissions are places where conservatives, often outnumbered, face long odds.  The result is an increasing leftist bent.  I was reminded of this when I was recently cancelled from the Idaho Advisory Committee on Civil Rights. 

The Idaho committee serves under the United States Commission on Civil Rights.  The USCCR produces several national reports on the status of civil rights in America, usually to fawning media attention.    

While the national commission has bipartisan representation (each party has four members), state advisory committees are made up of civil rights activists who decide, almost without exception, the issues the panels will take up.  State committees can do a lot of mischief.  They use the good name of civil rights to prod or embarrass states into action.  Utah’s committee recently released a typically unscientific report on the “gender wage gap” in the state, hoping to press  legislators for a response.  The Wyoming board recently released a tendentious report about the need for hate crime legislation in the Equality State, though there may have been no hate crimes there over the last 10 years.   

I have served on the Idaho advisory committee for eight years.  Outnumbered, my goal has been to persuade fellow members to stick to sound research methods and make circumscribed recommendations in line with the evidence.  In June, I renewed my application, and my name was forwarded to the USCCR for approval for a third term. USCCR Commissioner Michael Yaki, a former adviser to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, objected to my membership on the Idaho panel because, I was informed, I was “hostile to marriage equality and transgender rights” and my public statements “render [me] incapable of, and unable to, protect (sic) the constitutional rights supported by recent Supreme Court cases.”  My writings for the Heritage Foundation, included in my forthcoming book, “The Recovery of Family Life,” were the pretext for Yaki’s objection.   

I was given two days to respond. On the Yaki standard, Justices Sam Alito and Clarence Thomas would be ineligible to serve on a civil rights committees, since they dissented from the relevant Supreme Court cases on transgender rights or marriage equality.  Commissioner Yaki’s objection to my participation shows that conservatives will not be allowed to participate in civil rights discussions unless they abandon their conservatism.   

Conservatives should have space to make their arguments about how civil rights, properly understood, can produce a free and just society.  Conservatives worry, I argued, that the assertion of transgender rights (and others) will compromise other important, well-established civil rights.  For example, claims of transgender rights for children can abridge parental rights to oversee their children’s education and development. But too often commissioners consciously elevate the importance of some civil rights at the expense of all other civil rights claims.   

Addressing civil rights claims should always involve balancing.  Commissioner Yaki is no longer involved in civil rights advocacy, but instead is using the good name of the civil rights movement to promote an agenda where only the latest, most radical expressions of civil rights have legitimacy or deserve representation.  This should give civil rights a bad name. 

The gender ideology Commissioner Yaki pushes comes with a demand that governments and other citizens recognize new genders as objective facts.  This in itself would abridge the freedom of association, free speech rights and the freedom of mind of others.  It forces people to live according an official narrative instead of in liberty and mutual forbearance with their fellow citizens.   

Commissioner Yaki is gripped by a poisonous theory which holds that all disparities between racial or sexual groups are traceable to discrimination alone.  This ideology underlies the Black Lives Matter movement as much as the civil rights establishment.  Not only does this ideology rob society of its vitality and create endless grievances and civil disharmony, but it is demonstrably false: Inequalities arise from the diverse values of different subcultures or from natural differences between individual men and women, for instance.  

My letter failed to convince Commissioner Yaki and his Democratic colleagues.  I was excluded from the Idaho committee.  A fourth Republican commissioner was then appointed, Christian Adams.  The Republican commissioners, now equal in number with the Democrats, voted against the formation of the Idaho commission.  There we sit.   

Americans are justly proud of our accomplishments in spreading freedom and opportunity to people of all races, creeds, and ethnicities.  Some of that has been accomplished under the banner of civil rights, so much so that the idea of civil rights has an almost sacred character for our citizens: If it is civil rights, it must be good.   

This brings with it many temptations and dangers.  People rightly respect the label, but the label can be hijacked and provide cover for radicalism and error. This has probably happened to the USCCR and to our civil rights establishment generally.  It has become a thoroughly partisan institution run by a clique of narrow ideologues.  Government support for such a strictly partisan organ should cease.  And the good name of civil rights, sullied by those who compromise civil freedom, should either be reclaimed or jettisoned.

Scott Yenor teaches political science at Boise State University.

Show comments Hide Comments