Equality still needs fighting for

The claim that racism and bigotry are dead in America has lost all credibility in the wake of a suburban Philadelphia swim-club incident that rocked the nation this summer. Conversations surrounding the incident and the Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Judge Sonia Sotomayor are vivid evidence that prejudice, whether subtle or overt, is alive and well.

Understandably, the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission cannot comment on specific events at the Valley Club in Huntingdon Valley, other than to reassure Pennsylvania and the nation that we are conducting a thorough, impartial investigation. We are treating the allegations seriously, as we do every complaint of racial, ethnic, religious, gender, disability or other discrimination prohibited under Pennsylvania law.

To be absolutely clear, we are talking about the content and fervor of the conversations they have generated. Constructive conversation has been the norm, but destructive comments are circulating online and have been repeated on radio and television for all to read and hear. Comments have ranged from those made by people who are oblivious to the pain and perspective of others to those expressing virulent hatred for minorities and women.

Scores of people across the nation have used freedom of speech as a license to make bigoted, hateful comments online, on the air and elsewhere. Others simply fail to recognize their own biases.

In the chorus of comments, the overwhelming majority of voices are positive. Many are heartbroken at the pain suffered by children encountering racist remarks and express a heartfelt desire to confront racism and bigotry head on, and truly eliminate it from our nation’s discourse.

Children learn lessons from the behavior and conversations of the adults in their lives. What they are hearing, vividly and clearly, is that many Americans still believe all people are not created equal, and do not deserve the equal opportunities.

During her confirmation hearings before the United States Senate, we heard a woman of color asked if someone with her background and experiences can interpret laws impartially and fairly, often in ways that suggested her judgment is less valid because of who she is. We hear people fail to consider that every one of us can bring our own biases into the making and interpreting of laws if we are not vigilant in maintaining our objectivity. We hear the insensitivity that sometimes comes with privilege.

The Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission enforces the laws that give Pennsylvanians the right to live, work, learn and play free from illegal discrimination. We also work with businesses, law enforcement, schools and community groups to help them learn to appreciate racial and other differences and to diminish tensions by addressing conflicts constructively.

The need for our work is as clear today as it was in 1955, when the state civil-rights laws were passed. The evidence cries out for us to continue protecting civil rights and fighting for equal opportunity. But our ability to investigate and prosecute illegal discrimination is endangered by proposed state budget cuts that would drastically reduce our staff and diminish the effectiveness of services.

Pennsylvania’s legislators should listen to the chorus of voices from here and across the country — both those spreading racism and bigotry, and those crying out in support of the agency that fights every day to eradicate the discrimination that denies Pennsylvanians their legal right to equal opportunity.

Stephen A. Glassman is chairperson of the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission.