The significant progress made in reducing discrimination in the United States in recent years may suffer a serious reversal if many of the Reagan administration's budget proposals are enacted. This, warns the US Commission on Civil Rights, could happen just as the nation appears to be "entering another period of civil rights entrenchment."
In a lengthy and thoughtful report presented to the President and Congress June 25, the independent bipartisan commission examines in historical perspective proposed cutbacks in civil rights enforcement efforts, reduction in social service programs that especially affect minorities, and the gathering of categorical programs into block grants.
Entitled "Civil Rights: A National, Not a Special Interest," the commission's report is measured in tone but highly critical of the administration's budget. It makes the following points:
* The five federal agencies charged with enforcing civil rights laws will suffer budget cuts in 1982, three of them below 1981 levels. The agencies will lose 697 employees, nearly 10 percent of their total.
"The revisions threaten a significant decrease in federal civil rights enforcement efforts that may have long-term consequences for the ability of the nation to implement its constitutional commitment to equal opportunity," said commission chairman Arthur Flemming in presenting the report to Congress.
* The commission finds that minorities will suffer the most from cutbacks in health, housing, education, legal aid, and economic development assistance programs.
Such programs were designed "to overcome the present effects of the legacies of slavery, segregation, and discrimination," the report states, but administration cutbacks "lend great weight to the grave concern that the federal government is retreating from its historic and constitutional civil rights obligations."
* The report notes that instituting state block grants would do away with federal civil rights oversight as well as the requirement for state "maintenance of effort" in continuing programs targeted for the poor (a high proportion of whom are minorities). The proposed move from categorical programs to block grants, the commission finds, "raises serious civil rights concerns."
In its report, the Civil Rights Commission puts the current budgetary trend in historical perspective. It notes that the US Constitution was amended to protect minority rights after the Civil War but that these amendments were largely ignored following Reconstruction. It was not until 1954 that the US Supreme Court moved against segregation. The social programs begun in the 1960s and 1970s, the commission contends, were a necessary continuation of the effort to redress past wrongs and bring about equal opportunity.
"Despite this progress, discrimination remains very much a reality," Mr. Flemming said. "The reemergence of the Ku Klux Klan and other proponents of hate ideologies serve as graphic reminders that virulent, overt bigotry has not disappeared from our political landscape. Discrimination also comes in many more subtle -- but no less pernicious -- forms. In virtually all sectors of society, massive social and economic inequalities between white males and the rest of the population persist. . . .
"Our nation's civil rights problems are as real and as profound as the national fiscal problems that have necessitated a complete review of the federal budget," Flemming said. "We believe that our nation should commit the resources that are required to assure progress -- not retrogression -- in the field of civil rights."