In the midst of election primaries, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights held a day-long conference yesterday in Washington at the National Press Club titled “A New Era – Defining Civil Rights in the 21st Century.” There was a remarkably wide breadth of speakers, including columnist William Raspberry, Clarence B. Jones (former counsel and speechwriter for Martin Luther King), Roger Clegg (Center for Equal Opportunity), and Heather MacDonald (Manhattan Institute).

Considering the conference topic — discrimination and racial disparities — the civility and intelligence of the discussions and debates was remarkable. It showcased individuals who have divergent views of how serious a problem we still have with discrimination in this country and what steps we need to take to solve our remaining problems. This is seldom the case in the area of civil rights, where the so-called “traditional” civil rights establishment all too often labels those who disagree with their views as racists. For example, anyone who opposes the type of discrimination represented by racial preferences is automatically condemned as wanting to bring back Jim Crow.

One of the only exceptions to the civility was a member of the audience who is on the Commission’s Advisory Board in Nebraska. During the Q&A period, he angrily said he was “insulted” by the failure of the speakers to talk about the root of the problem black Americans face: the “fact” that all white people believe “blacks are inferior because of their DNA.”

What was also amazing was how much almost all of the speakers agreed that the most pressing problem in the black community today is not a lack of legal means to address actual discrimination in employment and other areas. The most pressing problem is a cultural one stemming from the fact that about three out of every four black children are born to single, unwed mothers. There is a complete absence of fathers in black inner urban areas, where gangs substitute for fatherly guidance and discipline, feeding the poverty cycle, dependence on welfare, poor education, and murderous violence. That is the real problem of civil rights in the 21st century — one that government is ill-equipped to handle and that most people do not want to talk about.

Another interesting note: several of the speakers, including Clarence Jones and Prof. Carol Swain, an African-American law professor at Vanderbilt University, definitely do not share the views of President Obama and other organizations such as the NAACP on illegal immigration. Swain, a very impressive woman who is one of 12 children born to a very poor family in the South, emphasized that not enforcing our laws against illegal immigration hurts the economic prospects of the black community — illegal aliens take jobs from poor citizens (white and black) and non-enforcement rewards immigrants who break the law. She emphasized how important it is that we are a nation based on the rule of law.

Such sentiments could indeed yield a “new era” in civil rights that is long overdue.