New Leadership in Civil Rights : Claremont Professor Replaces Flamboyant U.S. Official
Like his controversial predecessor as chairman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, William Allen is a black conservative Republican who opposes government programs such as affirmative action that give preference to minorities in hiring and educational opportunity.
But while Allen’s views closely resemble those of Clarence M. Pendleton Jr., who became a lightning rod for criticism by liberals that the Reagan Administration was attempting to reverse the civil rights advances of the previous two decades, his style is diametrically different.
Pendleton, who died in June after suffering a heart attack, frequently made headlines with his caustic comments. He attacked civil rights leaders as “new racists” and denounced the concept of comparable worth, which seeks to reduce the gap between the earnings of women and men, as “the looniest idea since Looney Tunes came on the screen.”
Allen, 44, a professor of government at the Claremont Graduate School, eschews such inflammatory rhetoric, preferring to express his viewpoints in scholarly language suited to an academic discussion.
“Everyone would agree that employment decisions should be fair,” Allen said, explaining his opposition to hiring quotas for minorities. “But the fact of the matter is (that) personal interaction is always subject to the influence of bigotry, and it is not always the case that we can contemplate some law or regulation to eliminate it.”
Allen, whom President Reagan appointed to the commission in April, 1987, and elevated to the chairmanship in August, presided over his first meeting earlier this month in Los Angeles. Commission member Murray Friedman said Allen directed the meeting with cool-headed emphasis on procedure, in contrast to the heated confrontations that often took place under Pendleton.
“I think he’s going to lower the temperature of the debate,” Friedman said by telephone from his office in Philadelphia, where he is Middle Atlantic states director for the American Jewish Committee. “The commission has frequently been the subject of enormous controversy and difficulty in recent years. I hope he will be a calming influence.”
Other commissioners agree that Allen is as intellectual in his approach as Pendleton was visceral, though not all view this as a change for the better.
“Penny had a rhetorical flair, but you always understood him, whether you agreed with him or not,” said Francis S. Guess, a consultant in Nashville, Tenn., who was appointed by Senate Republicans. “Mr. Allen is a lot more professorial. I’m going to start carrying a dictionary to meetings to look up some of the big words he uses.”
Commission member Esther Buckley, a high school science teacher from Laredo, Tex., said that she will miss Pendleton’s straightforwardness but that the commission may benefit from having a less flamboyant chairman.
Pendleton “always had a knack for coming up with all kinds of cutesy things that the press would pick up,” Buckley said. “I don’t think Commissioner Allen is like that, and as a result we’re going to be less controversial.”
Allen said he is not confident that he will avoid the rancor that dogged Pendleton, saying he has already heard rumblings of criticism within the civil rights community.
“It’s already happened without me even opening my mouth,” he said. “I’m being referred to as a right-wing ideologue or a joke . . . by people who’ve never met me, who’ve never read anything I’ve published over the years, who speak out of pure ignorance and fear. They use the same kind of language about me that they used about him.”
Of Allen’s colleagues, the most critical has been Mary Frances Berry, who was originally appointed to the commission by President Jimmy Carter in 1980 and later fired by Reagan. She sued to get back on the panel and was subsequently reappointed by House Democrats.
“All (Reagan) did was to get someone who would perpetuate the anti-civil rights positions,” said Berry, a professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania.
But Allen has escaped the vehement opposition that Pendleton faced when he was appointed to the commission in 1982. Spokesmen for organizations such as the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund and the National Organization for Women had no comment on Allen’s appointment, saying they didn’t know enough about him.
Harold Webb, who recently became executive secretary of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People for Los Angeles County after serving as president of the group’s Pomona Valley branch, offered a mixed assessment of Allen.
“He is an academic, and his approach to problems has been academic,” Webb said. “I don’t know how solid his reputation is in the black community.”
Webb applauded Allen’s support of anti-discrimination lawsuits, such as one filed by Reginald Clark, a professor at the Claremont Graduate School who claims that he was denied a tenured position because he is black. Allen said Clark’s case is a textbook example of the way in which minorities should seek to fight discrimination.
‘What Fairness Is’
“I think it would serve as a wonderful deterrent (to discrimination) in the society in general for the complaining individual to win a substantial compensation, and it will establish far more than any quotas what fairness is and how organizations such as the graduate school ought to conduct themselves,” Allen said. “That changes behavior, and, so far as we can see, regulatory actions such as affirmative action do not change behavior.”
Webb said he disagrees with Allen’s contention that such suits are the only remedy for discrimination and that affirmative action is ineffective.
“I think that cannot be the philosophy of the civil rights commission,” Webb said. “In the fight for civil rights, what the area (commissioners) have to be concerned about is employment, the inequities in hiring and promotion.”
But rather than provoking a confrontation with Allen on these and other issues, Webb said he hopes Allen can be persuaded to moderate his views.
“We have philosophical differences, but I think those philosophical differences have to take a back seat to the fact that he is now the chief administrator of the commission,” Webb said. His “philosophies are going to have to undergo some reassessment, and I believe that is what he is doing.”
No ‘Retroactive Justice’
Allen rejects the argument that hiring goals for minorities and other preferential systems are needed to offset past discrimination. Such programs, he said, unfairly discriminate against whites.
“You can’t create retroactive justice,” he said. “Those are generations that are gone. We should remember them; they constitute part of our heritage. But you can’t pretend to be making up for all that happened to them by picking on some poor immigrant’s son who just happens to have a white face and saying: ‘Tough luck, you’re the white face who’s here now, so you’ve got to pay for what happened 150 years ago.’ ”
On the issue of eliminating social and economic inequality based on sex, Allen stressed the differences between discrimination experienced by women and that suffered by ethnic minorities. While women have been kept out of positions of wealth, power and status, Allen said, they have enjoyed some benefit from being the wives, daughters or sisters of rich or powerful men.
“So, I think it’s inappropriate for women to deny (that) they have profited even if they have not personally grown in the manner they may have wished,” Allen said. “Now, they can sit in the chief executive’s seat or on the board or whatever, but that doesn’t mean that in getting them there it should be done at the expense of someone who was in fact genuinely disadvantaged.”
Opposes Comparable Worth
Allen said he favors equality of opportunity for women. As with racial discrimination, he believes that they should file suit to assert their legal rights. But he opposes comparable worth proposals and other suggested methods of achieving equitable pay.
“I don’t think we can arbitrarily, and by fiat, determine what specific skills are to be rewarded at what level in the society,” he said. “That is for the market to do. The notion that fair and equal pay calls for the society or the government itself to determine what each job is worth is a logical fallacy.”
Although he often speaks of civil rights in abstract, philosophical terms, Allen said he remembers the hard reality of discrimination from his childhood in Fernandina Beach, Fla. He recalls how his father, who had been a prosperous fisherman, was forbidden to work because his financial success “was a little bit more than was supposed to be permitted a black man.”
Allen said his political allegiance was forged at a young age by life under Jim Crow, the system of racial segregation that permeated virtually all aspects of Southern society.
“Where I grew up, there was only one party and it was the Democratic Party, and it was a party which sponsored a way of life which I found offensive,” Allen said. “It struck me as a silly thing for me to become a Democrat in the face of all that.”
Allen remains scathing in his criticism of Democrats, including the Rev. Jesse Jackson, whom he accuses of exploiting race for political advantage and keeping blacks in political servitude by promising them social programs and preferential treatment in jobs and education.
“It’s not like the old kind of patronage, the old boss-machine politics where you can still retain your dignity,” he said. “This is a kind which requires you to forgo your dignity, to place your fate in the hands of someone else and in effect to re-create the conditions of the plantation, with masters and overseers and slaves.”
Allen first met Reagan while working on the 1966 gubernatorial campaign as an undergraduate at Pepperdine University. Allen later received his doctorate from the Claremont Graduate School. While a graduate student, Allen, who speaks six languages, lectured at the University of Rouen in France.
In 1984, Reagan appointed Allen to the National Council on the Humanities, on which he served until 1987. Active in both of Reagan’s presidential campaigns, Allen also ran for office himself. He was elected to the Claremont school board in 1983 but was unsuccessful in seeking the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate in 1986.
Allen’s political views are more conservative than his party’s presidential candidate. He argues that Republican candidates, up to and including Vice President George Bush, have failed to attract black voters because they merely offer scaled-down versions of Democratic social programs.
“They’re always in the position of entering an auction where they’re the low bidder,” he said. “You see candidates who say, ‘Well, I’m in favor of a little bit of child care or a little bit of welfare or a little bit of job training.’ Well, what’s the difference between the liberal and conservative offer if that’s what the Republicans are doing? It comes down to mere dollars, and naturally anybody with any sense will choose the higher dollars.”
Winning Back Black Voters
Noting that most black voters were Republicans from the Reconstruction Era until the Great Depression, Allen said the GOP can win them back by cutting subsidy programs and encouraging entrepreneurial development.
“You can look around the country and see growing movements,” he said. “You see people who are pleased to have their welfare cut off and to go out and take care of themselves. You see people who say, ‘Don’t give me unemployment (compensation). Give me the cash in a lump sum, and I’ll go start a business.’
“You’re seeing this all over the place, and I think the one oddity is why it’s not reflected in our politics. . . . Why Bush does not make it part of his campaign I do not understand.”
Allen said he realizes that liberals and most moderates would criticize his proposals to improve the economic status of minorities as being insensitive to the needs of the poor.
“They call it insensitive because they have no confidence in people,” he said. “They believe people are slaves who have to be taken care of. We believe they are confident, free people.”
Allen’s term on the commission expires in 1992. However, he could be replaced as chairman by another commission member next year if the new president desires a change in the group’s ideological direction.
Allen said his position is not a partisan issue, but other commission members disagree.
Berry, considered by many to be the commission’s most liberal member, said neither presidential candidate would keep Allen in the post.
“Mr. Allen’s appointment appears to be a transitional one, a stopgap measure to find someone to follow in Pendleton’s footsteps,” she said. “We’re going to have to wait until after the election to get the Civil Rights Commission back on track.”