Is racial discrimination enough of a problem in Charlottesville, Virginia (population 43,000) to justify the creation of a human rights commission? Time will tell, but Charlottesville is clearly part of a trend. Once just a mainstay of big cities, HRCs have proliferated throughout America’s small and midsize municipalities, even as overt displays of discrimination have waned. Their geographic reach has spread as their mandates expand: nowadays, HRCs not only address race and gender discrimination, but also, increasingly, bias involving sexual orientation. Everyone from employers to landlords to public institutions is subject to commission oversight.
These commissions began appearing in the 1940s to quell tensions caused by segregation. After the passage of the landmark civil rights laws in 1964 and 1965, cities began to create new HRCs, with enforcement powers. These HRCs could mediate discrimination complaints at the local level, instead of allowing such disputes to proceed to state courts. Decades later, this logic has justified the formation of commissions in places like Morris, Minnesota; Waterloo, Iowa; Northampton, Massachusetts—and, a few weeks ago, in my hometown of Charlottesville.
Charlottesville suggested that the commission would help people avoid the burdens of litigation. It was also seen as a way to reconcile the city’s modern image as a progressive university town with its sordid racial past—which has included, against the backdrop of Jefferson’s Monticello, slavery, segregation, several years of “massive resistance” following public school integration, and the paving over of the historically black Vinegar Hill neighborhood for “urban renewal” in the 1960s. But the HRC became less popular when the city council determined that, rather than being solely an advisory body, the commission would have enforcement powers. A lone dissenting councilor expressed concern that the commission’s potentially arbitrary decisions could hurt the business community. Others felt that in such a heavily Democratic city, the commission might impose politically correct diktats at the expense of free speech.
As Mark Hemingway documented recently for The Weekly Standard, both concerns were valid. Hemingway explains how these commissions, while formed with good intentions, have never served “enough of a purpose to justify their existence.” With their free time, administrative heft, and the “power to ruin your life and run you out of business,” the commissions too often pursue ideological witch hunts.
Consider a recent example in Philadelphia, where Mayor Michael Nutter ordered the commission to hold a public hearing against a local magazine for its mildly offensive article on race. Or in Washington, D.C., where a bar owner was threatened with fines for naming a drink after an ethnic slur made by city councilman Marion Barry (who faced no such fine himself). Often, HRCs target religious groups unwilling to support certain views, like a Christian-owned print shop that refused to make T-shirts for a gay event and now awaits a public hearing before the Lexington-Fayette Urban County HRC in Kentucky; or a photography business run by evangelicals that was fined $6,637 by New Mexico’s HRC for refusing to shoot a gay wedding. New York City’s commission even threatened to fine a Welsh-themed pub for discrimination—because the pub sought employees with knowledge of Welsh culture. The fines themselves are suspect: revenues often go right back to the commissions. Iowa’s state HRC, for example, accrued $20,000 in “voluntary contributions” from various landlords over five years in exchange for not litigating charges brought against the landlords—by the commission itself.
Charlottesville’s political leaders had ample time to detect the potential for these abuses. Putting together the city’s commission took two years, during which the council devoted more debating minutes to the HRC than to fixing the city’s structurally deficient bridge or its ongoing traffic mess. Eventually, the council agreed that the commission would be responsible for policing public institutions, collaborating with area nonprofits, and engaging “residents in honest dialogue, community awareness, and brainstorming on issues of equity and opportunity.” After several raucous public hearings, the council determined that, lest this “dialogue” didn’t work, the commission would also have enforcement powers—meaning it could drag prospective offenders into mediation, public review, and even investigation by the city attorney. The commission will have two employees, a board of at least nine members, and a $197,000 budget.
Justifying itself, the Charlottesville commission’s task force reports that the city sees dozens of discrimination claims every year. But it’s difficult to know how many of these complaints are legitimate or caused by frustration over other problems Charlottesville’s black community faces—from gentrification to unaffordable housing to a poor low-level job market. Nor is it clear what defenses the named parties in these claims might offer.
The creation of HRCs in Charlottesville and elsewhere will only rekindle long-running debates about what causes the continued struggles of black communities in the first place. Charlottesville’s city council seems to believe that discrimination is a primary cause, one still prevalent enough to merit the creation of a powerful new bureaucracy. Let’s hope it is used judiciously and with an awareness of how abusive many others have become.