A member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights told Kansas University students Tuesday evening that the nation is in a bind and that politicians are not leading the country out of trouble.
Mary Frances Berry, a civil rights commissioner since 1989, spoke about the current climate of civil rights as part of KU's celebration of Black History Month. About 250 people attended her lecture.
Berry, the Geraldine R. Segal Professor of American Social Thought at the University of Pennsylvania, said that in order to talk about civil rights today, she first needed to put everything into context.
"We live in a world which really is a global village," said Berry, who talked about recent events in Eastern Europe, the economic power of Japan, how democracy is still struggling to evolve in South Africa and how the United States is turning its back on Haitian refugees.
Berry said the nation has reached a point where poor families without health insurance worry if their ill child is "Five dollars sick, fifty dollars sick or thousands of dollars sick."
The nation is living, Berry said, in the kind of climate in which "status quo-ism" and fear of the different thrive.
BERRY SAID the economy is feeding racism and discrimination.
She also leveled criticism at President Bush.
Berry said Bush's State of the Union address will not result in fundamental change. Rather, it was filled with gimmicks, she said.
"Even when campaigning, our president doesn't seem sincere," Berry said.
Berry pointed out that Bush's promise to be the "education president" has gone unfulfilled.
"Everybody talks about being for education," Berry said. The United States has an "education president," "education senators" and "education dogcatchers," she said.
Berry called for Bush to "make sure that all schools are good schools." "We have a class problem and a race problem at our schools," said Berry, who was the first minority woman to head a major research university, the University of Colorado-Boulder, where she was chancellor.
UNTIL CIVIL rights laws are enforced, Berry said the nation will experience more racial polarization. She said there has been a "great upsurge of racial tension" and racially motivated crimes in the United States. Most have been targeted against African-Americans and Jews, she said.
Berry said the nation's "lack of leadership and healing" encourages racism. Berry said that to Bush and GOP presidential hopefuls David Duke and Pat Buchanan, "everything's a quota." But there always have been quotas for minorities, Berry said.
"The quota was zero, a low quota," Berry explained. "Now, all we hear is quota, quota."
SHE ENCOURAGED KU's student body to use judgment and critical thinking when making decisions about who should lead the nation. She told the students to hold politicians accountable.
"They count on you not remembering" their promises, Berry said. "Every time a politician tells you something, do a reality check."
Berry urged audience members to start their own war on social problems, to volunteer, to march and protest, which she said is an essential ingredient of politics.
"There cannot be good leadership if there is not good `followership,'" Berry said. "You have to act to make change, and change takes time."