New York has the oldest anti-discrimination law in the country â€“ dating back to 1945 â€“ but when it comes to implementing its policies, the state lags behind. The New York State Division of Human Rights is saddled with a backlog of thousands of complaints filed by people who claim that they have been discriminated against. Under the current review process, it can take three years or more for a case to be resolved.
Kumiki Gibson, Governor Eliot Spitzer’s new commissioner of human rights, promises to change the agency, and she recently invited me to her main offices at One Fordham Plaza in the Bronx to explain what she wants to do. Gibson admits she faces challenges. By her own account, Gibson says that when she arrived at the division she found it “filled with people at the top who were not committed to civil rights and good management.”
WHO IS KUMIKI GIBSON?
A native of Buffalo, Kumiki Gibson is a former counsel to Vice President Al Gore and, most recently, counsel to the president of the National Urban League. The daughter of an immigrant mother from Japan and an African-American father, Gibson says that her parents “saw to it that I got a good education and taught me that I could achieve the American Dream.” Gibson believes that most of her personal experience with discrimination stems from her work as a litigator and “being a woman in a man’s world.”
Inspired by Spitzer’s “One New York” theme set out at his inauguration, in which he acknowledged “the civil rights movement still has chapters to be written,” Gibson hopes to overhaul the New York State Division of Human Rights.
“We need to give all New Yorkers the opportunity to have full and productive lives,” she said. “This was a chance to create an institution that will survive over time.”
REFORMING THE AGENCY
More than 85 percent of the complaints to the Division of Human Rights involve employment discrimination, the majority from people of color, followed by bias based on sex, disability, age, national origin, creed, conviction record, and sexual orientation.
Gibson’s first priority is dealing with the backlog of cases dating back three or more years â€“ and her goal is to resolve each case in 465 days or less.
“That’s the statutory target, but the division never adopted targets,” she said. “Legislators put targets there for a reason. I want to get all cases in and out.”
Gibson said that she will seek changes in the law that will make it “easier for complainants to file with us or go into court.”
The agency is also actively inviting civil and human rights groups around the state to come to its offices to see what it is doing to improve things.
Gibson sees outreach and public education as a “powerful tool to enforce the law,” and that the agency would be sending out undercover testers “where we suspect systemic discrimination.”
A NEW AGENDA?
Although Commissioner Gibson is looking at ways that the law may need to be changed, she has not settled on a legislative agenda yet.
Asked about the bill to add “gender identity and expression” to state law, as New York City did in 2002, Gibson said that she believes state law already protects transgender people and the division welcomes their complaints of discrimination. The governor does support the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act and Gibson said, “I’m just trying to figure out if changes are needed.”
Joe Tarver, a spokesperson for the Empire State Pride Agenda, which is championing the transgender rights bill, said, “No matter what case law there is or what opinions by government officials there are, there is no substitute for explicit protections in the law against discrimination.”
Craig Gurian, a civil rights attorney at the Anti-Discrimination Center of Metro New York, who has played a major role in strengthening the city’s human rights law, welcomes Gibson’s appointment.
“During the Pataki years and for that matter before that, in a lot of ways the State Division was entirely non-functional,” said Gurian. “It bore no relation to a prosecuting and investigating agency,” a criticism he makes of many such human rights commissions around the country.
While he said that he did not know Gibson previously, he believes that she thinks of her job as a civil rights enforcement job, not an administrative or bureaucratic position and that she has hired civil rights lawyers for the staff.
That said, Gurian believes “there aren’t enough people at the division and there are a lot of people not doing the jobs that they’re supposed to.” But he also thinks that Gibson “understands that you can’t just rely on individual complainants coming forward. You have to be proactive. I’m sure we’ll see more division-initiated investigations.”
While he is glad that Gibson has a greater sense of urgency about resolving complaints of discrimination, he said, “It is always sobering to realize how time-consuming good investigations are.”
In the coming years, Gibson believes that her record will speak for itself.
“They should say, `the proof is in the pudding,’ but no one should question my commitment to civil rights,” said Gibson. “I want people to get justice.”
“We have to gain more credibility and enhance our reputation in the community,” she added. “We have work to do to make people believe in us again. If we can’t, we need to rethink our purpose.”
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. Â