New York City has long practiced symbolic politics. As Mayor Bloomberg intoned in his first budget speech, the fact that New York employs more city workers per city resident than the federal government employs per American "just shows you that the city is more compassionate." According to this conventional wisdom, Gotham’s gargantuan welfare state is a sign of New Yorkers’ moral superiority.
But the time for symbolic politics is over. With an ever-worsening budget situation, the mayor is cutting services essential to civilized urban life: sanitation, policing, and parks. What he should be eliminating are agencies and programs whose sole purpose is to show that the city cares.
A good place to start would be the city’s Human Rights Commission. Dating back to 1955, when there was little federal or state civil rights enforcement, this $7.8 million agency, which investigates, prosecutes, and adjudicates civil rights complaints, is totally superfluous now that we have the federal Equal Employment Opportunities Commission, the Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights, the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, the Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity at the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Office of Civil Rights in the federal department of Health and Human Services, the state Division of Human Rights, the government-funded Legal Aid Society and Legal Services Corporation, and the huge private anti-discrimination bar. Private attorneys can sue directly under the city’s very liberal civil rights law in federal or state court without going through the Commission.
The Commission’s activities beyond its redundant enforcement function are equally unneeded. It conducts "life management skills" presentations at local jails on topics like "Anger Management" and "Sexism and Domestic Violence,' and it hosted a 1997 conference on health care gaps for prisoners with AIDS—functions of questionable utility that a gazillion other government-funded agencies and contractors are already performing. The Commission is also trying to seed and nurture future civil rights litigants by holding seminars for students on the city’s human rights laws.
Not that there’s much evidence of discrimination in New York, as Bloomberg himself courageously acknowledged during the mayoral campaign. At least 80 percent of the cases brought before the city’s Human Rights Commission in 2000 wound up dismissed, either because the plaintiff disappeared after filing his complaint or because the allegations had no merit. Almost all of the cases that aren’t dismissed result in settlements in which the defendant makes a small symbolic payment.
The paltry evidence of widespread bigotry troubles the left-wing New York City Bar Association. In a report published last December and publicized in an upcoming Channel 7 news report, the Bar Association has called on the Human Rights Commission to spend an additional "tens of millions of dollars over four years" beating the bushes for proof of discrimination, so that more defendants can be sued. The Bar Association reminds us to keep this "relatively modest sum" in perspective: after all, it’s not "tens of billions," the trade group of well-paid professionals remarks.
The Bloomberg Administration not only should reject the Bar Association’s irresponsible call for greater spending but should abolish outright the Human Rights Commission. The mayor has recently proposed an additional $10.4 million in sanitation cuts that would further reduce already insufficient trash pick-ups in the city. He could nearly restore that cut with the $8 million the city would save by shutting down the Human Rights Commission. City residents would benefit far more from clean streets and a pleasant business environment than from a duplicative city agency fighting a non-existent epidemic of discrimination. And the city’s children would benefit far more if the Bar Association’s members volunteered as Scoutmasters or Big Brothers instead of writing tendentious reports on phantom racism.