Published June 30, 2020
She had accepted an invitation to apply, then forgot about it, Professor Athena Mutua says. So it came as something of a surprise when the news came that she had been appointed to the New York State Advisory Committee of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.
But a happy surprise. Mutua, a longtime member of the UB School of Law faculty, counts among her academic interests the fraught intersection of race, class and the law. It’s fertile background for working with the state committee, which advises the federal civil rights commission on issues including education funding, voting issues, policing practices and the criminal justice system.
Her appointment also comes at a tipping-point moment in history, and Mutua says she recognizes that anyone concerned with ensuring and expanding civil rights in America can see opportunity in the current moment.
“We’re at an interesting point in history,” she says. “There is the pandemic, the economic crisis that arises in part from the pandemic, then the unrest related to state violence against people of color. These three crises happened very quickly, all in a three-month period. I hope the committee will focus on an issue that is embedded in those interrelated crises… or that might push us forward on a particular issue that grows out of that intersection.
“This is something I’ve been engaged in all my life, and it will only deepen my understanding of some of the issues that affect our lives.”
The Commission on Civil Rights, which was created as part of the Civil Rights Act of 1957, maintains 51 state-level advisory committees, including one for the District of Columbia. Their volunteer members, chosen for their diversity and their familiarity with local and state civil rights issues, assist the commission with fact-finding and investigation of allegations of civil rights violations, as well as enterprise projects reporting on civil rights issues unique to their state.
For example, the New York State committee in February released a major report on school funding in the state, titled “Education Equity in New York: A Forgotten Dream.” It argued that students of color are being deprived of the right to participate in civil society because they lack access to fundamental good-quality education, simply based on their poverty or their color. An earlier report looked at the excesses and failures of the “broken windows” policing strategy, which posits that vigorous enforcement efforts against minor crimes prevents more significant crime.
Mutua recently sat in on the first meeting of her four-year term, via Zoom, of the New York State committee, which operates out of New York City. She’s not the only lawyer in the group.
Joining Mutua on the committee is a UB Law alumnus, Robert Klump ’83, whose practice is in Buffalo.
The committee includes sociologists, entrepreneurs, educators and doctors – “a variety of folks,” people with different areas of expertise. She also acknowledges that her fellow committee members come from a diversity of political viewpoints, though the committee and the Civil Rights Commission itself are determinedly non-partisan.
“There are a lot of different voices at the table, and that’s a good thing,” Mutua says. “One would argue that the promotion and preservation of civil rights is a non-partisan issue.”
The way forward is wide open. At the meeting, the chairwoman asked for one-page proposals from all members on what they think the committee should focus on. Mutua is thinking about hers.