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Where Is The Civil Rights Agenda?

What does “civil rights” mean in 2007?

In his target="new"> State of the City address, Mayor Michael Bloomberg made only one explicit reference to civil rights: “Four years ago this week on Martin Luther King Junior's birthday in 2003 we spelled out our plan to uphold a basic and fundamental civil right: The right to a quality education.”

Bloomberg went on to bemoan underachievement by African American and Latino students in city schools and heralded evidence that the city is “closing the racial and ethnic performance gap that has long been the shame of our school system.”

The new Governor, Eliot Spitzer, called his State of the State address “One New York,” and in his litany of what “One New York” means, he included this line: “One New York means a state that understands that the civil rights movement still has chapters to be written.”

But what is the content of these chapters? There was no further explicit mention of “civil rights” in his speech, but Spitzer did talk about “Lieutenant Governor Paterson’s comprehensive plan for minority- and women-owned business development”; he also said that state laws should protect “a woman’s right to control her own reproductive health,” and that a worker should never be "forced to choose between keeping her faith and keeping her job.”

There seems to have been a shift – and a reduction -- in rhetoric around civil rights from New York’s leaders. But does this mean they do not care about racial and other kinds of discrimination?

Mayor Bloomberg is not the only one to frame education as a civil rights issue. The NAACP under Hazel Dukes is deeply involved in the campaign for smaller class size – which the Bloomberg administration has resisted.

Bloomberg has also focused on addressing the problems of the poor: He is committed to getting the Earned Income Tax Credit to more families. He has pledged to reduce chronic illnesses in low-income communities.

The mayor has been skillful as well in addressing the case of Sean Bell, an African-American man who was killed on is wedding day in a hail of 51 police bullets in Queens. Early on he acknowledged that it seemed “excessive” to him, much to the consternation of Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly and the police union. However well or ill-advised the mayor’s remarks were, they did help defuse some racial tension over the issue.

For his part, Governor Spitzer has given New York its first African American Lieutenant Governor, former Senate Democratic Leader David Paterson of Harlem. “There's a sense that people have sometimes that others aren't ready for a woman, for an African-American, for a gay or lesbian,” Paterson said at a rousing inauguration at Riverside Church. “But the perception that others aren't ready is actually, in many ways, the confirmation that you aren't ready -- because others seem to do fine when left to their own devices.”

Paterson is fond of quoting Frederick Douglass and is especially keen on significantly increasing the percentage of firms getting state contracts that are owned by people of color and women (as Spitzer alluded to in his address).

Spitzer also has appointed Kumiki Gibson to head the moribund State Division of Human Rights. She has been a leader at the National Urban League and is a former counsel to Vice President Al Gore.

One could argue that several aspects of Spitzer’s first budget, released on the last day of January, could fit a civil rights agenda – his plan for education, above all, which (according to the Campaign for Fiscal Equity) “will increase total annual state education aid from the current level of $17.6 billion to $24.7 billion in four years. Equally important, all future education funding will be the product of a new foundation formula which takes district poverty and inflation into account.” And, to take a less publicized example, the New York City Coalition Against Hunger praised Spitzer’s call for a 24 percent increase in government funding for more than 2,000 charitable food pantries and soup kitchens.

Still, it would be difficult to tell one month into the new Spitzer administration and into the second Bloomberg administrations, that there are explicitly civil rights issues in New York that some advocacy groups consider priorities:

Same-sex marriage: The most contentious civil rights issue in the state is whether or not it will open marriage to same-sex couples. Spitzer has promised to introduce a bill to accomplish that, but has also told advocates that he does not believe it will pass here for ten years.

School Segregation: New York has among “the highest levels of black segregation,” according to a student of the Harvard Civil Rights Project, which found “the average black student attended schools with less than one quarter white students in 2003.” The New York Civil Liberties Union has made the ending of such segregation a priority. Legal Director Arthur Eisenberg has said: “Racially segregated schools lead to inadequate educational opportunities for children of color; which lead to disparities in job opportunities and income; which lead to racially segregated housing and communities; which lead to segregated schools.”

Civil Liberties Most civil libertarians see the United States Constitution under siege by the Bush administration through everything from the indefinite detention of terror suspects to intrusions on our fundamental rights to privacy. These make local concerns over civil liberties issues seem pale by comparison. But advocates, such as the New York Civil Liberties Union, feel they cannot afford to ignore:

Surveillance. The New York Civil Liberties Union is calling for public oversight of the “rapid proliferation of video cameras” in town.

Parade Restrictions. There has been much grumbling over the new Police Department regulations on how many bicyclists can ride through town together without a permit.

The Right To Assembly. There has been a call, for example, to end the music ban at Central Park’s Strawberry Fields memorial to John Lennon.

Patients’ Rights The NYCLU is also raising concerns about how patient rights will be compromised by adopting routine testing for HIV instead of informed written consent as is required now.

Police-Community Relations. In the wake of the Sean Bell case, there have been greater calls to do something about police attitudes toward communities of color.

In his State of the City, Bloomberg did not address the Bell case directly, but said respect between police and the public must flow “in both directions” and promised more resources for the woefully understaffed Civilian Complaint Review Board—a promise he delivered on shortly thereafter. It is still extremely rare for the board to take action against police misconduct, no less for the department to discipline their own.

Bloomberg also promised to improve training at the police academy, but there was no talk of the kind of fundamental restructuring of police work that other cities (including New Haven) have undertaken to reduce the “us vs. them” relationship between police and the communities they serve.

Andy Humm, a former member of the City Commission on Human Rights, has been in charge of the civil rights topic page since its inception in 2001. He is co-host of the weekly "Gay USA" on Manhattan Neighborhood Network (34 on Time-Warner; 107 on RCN) on Thursdays at 11 PM.  

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