A Front Row Seat for Civil Rights Debates

Some time ago, an aide to Todd Gaziano, one of the eight members of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, contacted me about serving on the Commission’s Georgia Advisory Committee. I couldn’t say no; the opportunity was too interesting.

Well, since the beginning of the year, I’ve had two opportunities to see just how interesting the position could be. In the spring, I attended a Georgia Advisory Committee meeting here in Atlanta. We vetted and ultimately approved a very tentative report on the civil rights implications of school discipline in the state. Whether the disparate racial impact we found is caused by discrimination is a question we couldn’t answer on the basis of the evidence we had. We had hard questions, but no easy answers.

Then, back in mid-July, Commissioner Gaziano’s aide contacted me to ask if I’d be willing to participate as a panelist in a briefing on the civil rights implications of state immigration laws in Birmingham. Not quite knowing what to expect, but being an agreeable guy, always ready to learn, I said “sure.”

That’s how I found myself with a front row seat for an event that made news all over the southeast. I even saw myself in a picture on the NBC News website.

Bob Miller / for NBC News

Don’t worry: I didn’t attract any attention, negative or positive, especially since my contribution to the day’s proceedings was to apply first principles (the consent of the governed, the rule of law, federalism, and separation of powers) to the vexed question of immigration policy. But my fellow panelists included one of the principal authors of all the controversial state immigration laws, state legislative leaders from Alabama and Georgia, and representatives of advocacy groups on both sides of the question.

And in the audience were demonstrators who, as the Commission chair told us, were exercising their First Amendment rights by interrupting the speakers with whom they disagreed.

It wasn’t exactly democratic deliberation at its finest, but, then, democratic deliberation rarely is. Everyone had the opportunity to speak. The demonstrators got the media attention they wanted. The news outlets got some dramatic footage. And the Commission—evidently deeply divided—saw its divisions replicated among the panelists and in the audience. Again, there were hard questions and no easy answers.

Dr. Joseph M. Knippenberg  is a Professor of Politics at Oglethorpe University.