Dr. Kaufmann Joins the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights
Recently, Northwest University’s own Dr. Andrew Kaufmann, an assistant professor of Political Science, was selected to be a part of the Washington State Advisory Committee for the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. This commission has a long history of important work and we are thrilled that Dr. Kaufmann will get to be a part of that work. In the interview below, Dr. Kaufmann tells us more about what his time on the committee might look like, as well as how Christianity can play an important role in these discussions.
What is the purpose of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights?
"The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights has the dual function of investigating the infringement of federal civil rights and informing Congress of the need for new federal civil rights law or the need for better enforcement of existing law. When it was established about 60 years ago, its primary focus was on voting rights, but its purview extends to all federal civil rights law. For example, the commission has the responsibility to investigate violations of voting rights, which may include unlawful barriers to access against people of color. Civil rights law has special regard for people who are in legally protected classes. These classes include race, color, religion, sex, age, disability, and national origin. The commission therefore will pay particular attention to discrimination against people in those protected classes. Other areas of commission work have included human trafficking, mass incarceration, and education funding, among many others. Wherever there is unequal treatment, the commission has the responsibility to investigate and inform.
Congress mandated that the commission establish 51 state advisory committees (D.C. plus the 50 states) to be the “eyes and ears” for the commission. The country is too big for a small body in Washington, D.C., to carry out its mission of investigation and informing. The state committees therefore are extensions of the commission. The Washington State Advisory Committee will investigate instances of discrimination in the state of Washington and report to the commission its findings. Over a four-year period (the length of each member’s appointment), it’s likely the committee will investigate and report on two issues. The investigation will include research, public hearings, and interviews with experts on the areas the committee chooses to focus on. At the end of the investigation, a report will be written to present to the commission. Not every member is obligated to sign on to the report; if a member doesn’t agree with the report, he or she has the opportunity to write a minority report.
The work of the committees and the commission is ultimately in the hands of Congress and the executive branch. It’s up to those governmental bodies to create new civil rights law, to amend existing law, or to enhance and improve the enforcement of existing law. The commission and the committees do have a strong track record of making a difference, even if they themselves don’t have legislative or enforcement power."
What will your role look like as a new addition to the Washington State Advisory Committee?
"The state committees typically have a new crop of members every four years, so I will be joining a group of about a dozen other Washington state citizens who are also new to the committee (though it’s possible some of these folks have served on the committee before). These people seem to be mostly law and politics professors at various universities throughout the state, although it appears from my observations that some of them work for nonprofits. All of them are on the committee because they have some knowledge of civil rights law in the state of Washington. I believe my role will include doing the work that I mention above: research, interviews, public hearings, and perhaps most importantly, discussing, disagreeing, and engaging with my fellow committee members. I believe the committee meets four times a year.
I should add that the committee is set up to represent a diversity of viewpoints. I do not know exactly where the commission thinks I am on a spectrum of viewpoint diversity (although I have my suspicions). However, I look forward to serving with people who have different backgrounds and viewpoints than I do. Hopefully this diversity will make for enriching discussions and debates."
How were you selected to be a part of this group?
"I was invited to apply to the committee in early April, and I was formally selected to be on the committee in June. The application process was a response to a series of written questions, mostly having to do with my knowledge of civil rights issues."
What do you hope to accomplish during your time with the Washington SAC?
"I do not have any grand ambitions for what I hope to accomplish while on the Washington SAC. I want to serve on the committee with humility, offering my expertise, perspective, and labor. Of course, I’d love to be part of meaningful change in Washington state in the area of civil rights. However, as mentioned above, that change is ultimately beyond my control.
Having said that, serving on the committee appealed to me for several reasons. First, as a professor of politics and law, this seems like a great opportunity to use my knowledge and skills to serve the wider community. As a professor, I spend most of my time preparing and encouraging students to get involved in the political world. This is a chance for me to be involved in a direct way. Second, this is a time when civil rights, equal protection, and discrimination are front and center in the national conversation. Police brutality and race, voting rights, and the perennial conflict between the rights of LGBTQ and religious institutions are at the heart of our discourse right now. Third, I also saw this as a great opportunity to learn more about civil rights law and discrimination in the state of Washington, both for my own knowledge and for the enhancement of my teaching at NU."
Finally, it's possible for me to have students help me with different tasks pertinent to my work on the Committee. I plan to reach out to highly capable students who have interest in pursuing a career in politics or the law.
How does your faith play into your work with the Washington SAC?
"I see my faith playing a role here in a number of ways. First, the Christian ethic centers on love of neighbor as oneself. For politics and civil rights in particular, this implies reciprocity. We are pushed to say that the kinds of protections I would want to have for myself should also be those I seek out for my neighbors. For example, I would not want to be discriminated against because of the color of my skin or because of my religion—therefore, I should strive to ensure that my neighbors are not discriminated against for those reasons either. This is true even when as a Christian I disagree with the beliefs and practices of my neighbors. Perhaps one of the greatest witnesses we can have as Christians in the political world is to love our fellow citizens even when we object on faith grounds to their beliefs or behavior. One way to show that love is to actively seek civil rights protection for them. One of the great tasks of politics is to find commonality amid a world of deep difference, and I have the opportunity as a Christian on this committee to lead toward the accomplishment of this difficult task. Protection of civil rights is actually even more important as we live in an increasingly diverse and pluralistic world.
Second, any time Christians navigate the political world, they will need to figure out how to speak the truth in love, how to have conviction and compassion, and how to speak with boldness and humility. What I said above about neighborly love is obviously rooted in my Christian conviction, but it is certainly not the case that my Christian faith reveals all the answers to thorny civil rights issues. The recent Bostock decision from the Supreme Court, which interprets the word “sex” in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act as including “sexual orientation” and “gender identity,” makes it a violation of civil rights law to discriminate on those bases in employment. How are we to balance these newfound federal rights against the rights of faith-based employers like Northwest University? Greater minds than mine are already working through this thicket, but it would be foolish to think my Christian faith gives me a ready-made answer to this problem. I think it’s possible for our political community to see a way forward on this very relevant issue, and my work on the committee will be toward that end. But I will do so with great humility.
One of our core Christian commitments is to recognize the image of God in everyone, including the weak and vulnerable. In fact, Christ calls us to have special compassion for the "least of these." The history of civil rights is largely the history of the attempt to protect the weak and vulnerable in society: people of color, the disabled, religious minorities, women. Therefore, my work on the Committee can be seen as a direct result of this central Christian mandate to care for those on the margins of society."
We are excited for all that Dr. Kaufmann has ahead of him as a part of this committee. We are confident that the Washington State Advisory Committee for the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights is gaining a fine addition to their group, and we look forward to hearing about their progress together.