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Black civil rights chairman defends Reagan's record

Clarence M. Pendleton Jr. is a minority within a minority. He is black. But, unlike most blacks, he supports President Reagan's civil rights policies. And, as chairman of the US Commission on Civil Rights, he is perhaps Reagan's most visible black proponent.

When asked in an interview whether there is still a segregation problem in America, Mr. Pendleton does not hedge. He says, flatly, ''No. Not that I know of.''

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Why then, asks a visitor, does the government bother with such corrective action as school desegregation suits?

''You tell me,'' says Pendleton, stretching his legs across several chairs that surround a conference table in his office.

''You cannot now deny people's access to freedom, their right to go wherever they want to be educated,'' he continues. ''Is there some other (antidiscrimination) law we need? I don't know (of any). People say we need to enforce civil rights laws better - but the greatest enforcement budget in history is up right now.''

''Reagan's gotten a bad rap on civil rights,'' he says.

The Civil Rights Commission has been at the center of the controversy over Reagan's minority rights policies. The panel's official job is to keep track of the state of civil rights in the United States, and for the past three years it has complained loudly and often about White House actions.

Though three members of the six-person panel were appointed by Republican presidents, only the chairman, Pendleton, consistently defends Reagan. Meetings become skirmishes, with Pendleton and the other commissioners trading barrages of strongly held opinions. Votes approving reports and statements critical of the administration are often 5 to 1 - with Pendleton dissenting.

''I've tried several times on issues to talk about compromise - suggesting changes in press releases and so forth. Before I can even discuss them they're dismissed out of hand,'' Pendletonclaims.

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The chairman may soon find his hand strengthened. In May, the White House announced it would replace the panel's three most liberal members, a move critics charge is an effort to ''pack'' an historically independent agency. A Senate committee is scheduled to vote this week on the nominations of three new, more conservative commssioners.

During its term in office, the Reagan administration has on occasion displayed what some see as a tendency to mishandle civil rights issues. The White House won no friends by delaying its support for reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act; a decision to back tax-exempt status for a segregated private school, Bob Jones University, proved even more damaging.

Pendleton admits these were ''tactical errors.'' But, agreeing with other administration officials, he says affirmative action is the key issue in the current civil rights debate.

The administration has long said society should be ''colorblind'' - should treat everyone equally, regardless of race. Use of affirmative action plans with quotas, which give preference on the basis of race, is far from ''colorblind,'' says Pendleton.

''You don't take the shackles off one man, say he's equal, and put shackles on another one,'' he says.

Critics say quotas are needed to overcome the residue of discrimination that lingers in US work places. They also point out that such measures have been sanctioned by the courts.

Pendleton replies that he believes in the ''classic definition of affirmative action - recruitment and training'' to improve the economic lot of minorities.

While head of the Urban League in San Diego (a post he held from 1975-82), says Pendleton, he created 7,000 jobs by encouraging labor unions, trade associations, and other organizations to voluntarily recruit and train minorities.

''They weren't federally subsidized jobs,'' he says. ''I'm proud of that. One of the mistakes the civil rights community has made is that we beat up on the wrong people. We should have been beating up on the private sector, asking them to create work, and looking at government policies that deplete the resources of the private sector.''

Pendleton is currently head of a local development corporation in San Diego. The company, which is partly subsidized by the federal Small Business Administration, lends money at low interest rates to minority businesses.

''Until I was 38 years old I thought the government owed us it all,'' remembers Pendleton. ''I was a bleeding-heart liberal. I didn't know why.''

Then, he says, he moved to San Diego, got caught up in local development schemes, and became frustrated with government interference.

''The best thing the black community can do is not look to the government to be their savior,'' he says.

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