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New Leadership in Civil Rights : Claremont Professor Replaces Flamboyant U.S. Official

September 18, 1988|JEFFREY MILLER | Times Staff Writer

Like his controversial predecessor as chairman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, William Allen is a black conservative Republican who opposes government programs such as affirmative action that give preference to minorities in hiring and educational opportunity.

But while Allen's views closely resemble those of Clarence M. Pendleton Jr., who became a lightning rod for criticism by liberals that the Reagan Administration was attempting to reverse the civil rights advances of the previous two decades, his style is diametrically different.

Pendleton, who died in June after suffering a heart attack, frequently made headlines with his caustic comments. He attacked civil rights leaders as "new racists" and denounced the concept of comparable worth, which seeks to reduce the gap between the earnings of women and men, as "the looniest idea since Looney Tunes came on the screen."

Allen, 44, a professor of government at the Claremont Graduate School, eschews such inflammatory rhetoric, preferring to express his viewpoints in scholarly language suited to an academic discussion.

"Everyone would agree that employment decisions should be fair," Allen said, explaining his opposition to hiring quotas for minorities. "But the fact of the matter is (that) personal interaction is always subject to the influence of bigotry, and it is not always the case that we can contemplate some law or regulation to eliminate it."

Allen, whom President Reagan appointed to the commission in April, 1987, and elevated to the chairmanship in August, presided over his first meeting earlier this month in Los Angeles. Commission member Murray Friedman said Allen directed the meeting with cool-headed emphasis on procedure, in contrast to the heated confrontations that often took place under Pendleton.

"I think he's going to lower the temperature of the debate," Friedman said by telephone from his office in Philadelphia, where he is Middle Atlantic states director for the American Jewish Committee. "The commission has frequently been the subject of enormous controversy and difficulty in recent years. I hope he will be a calming influence."

Other commissioners agree that Allen is as intellectual in his approach as Pendleton was visceral, though not all view this as a change for the better.

"Penny had a rhetorical flair, but you always understood him, whether you agreed with him or not," said Francis S. Guess, a consultant in Nashville, Tenn., who was appointed by Senate Republicans. "Mr. Allen is a lot more professorial. I'm going to start carrying a dictionary to meetings to look up some of the big words he uses."

Commission member Esther Buckley, a high school science teacher from Laredo, Tex., said that she will miss Pendleton's straightforwardness but that the commission may benefit from having a less flamboyant chairman.

Pendleton "always had a knack for coming up with all kinds of cutesy things that the press would pick up," Buckley said. "I don't think Commissioner Allen is like that, and as a result we're going to be less controversial."

Allen said he is not confident that he will avoid the rancor that dogged Pendleton, saying he has already heard rumblings of criticism within the civil rights community.

"It's already happened without me even opening my mouth," he said. "I'm being referred to as a right-wing ideologue or a joke . . . by people who've never met me, who've never read anything I've published over the years, who speak out of pure ignorance and fear. They use the same kind of language about me that they used about him."

Of Allen's colleagues, the most critical has been Mary Frances Berry, who was originally appointed to the commission by President Jimmy Carter in 1980 and later fired by Reagan. She sued to get back on the panel and was subsequently reappointed by House Democrats.

"All (Reagan) did was to get someone who would perpetuate the anti-civil rights positions," said Berry, a professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania.

But Allen has escaped the vehement opposition that Pendleton faced when he was appointed to the commission in 1982. Spokesmen for organizations such as the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund and the National Organization for Women had no comment on Allen's appointment, saying they didn't know enough about him.

Harold Webb, who recently became executive secretary of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People for Los Angeles County after serving as president of the group's Pomona Valley branch, offered a mixed assessment of Allen.

"He is an academic, and his approach to problems has been academic," Webb said. "I don't know how solid his reputation is in the black community."

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