- Former Chairwoman of U.S. Civil Rights Commission
- Supporter of racial preferences in employment and education
- Professor at University of Pennsylvania
- Admirer of Mao Zedong
Born in 1938 in Nashville, Tennessee, Mary Frances Berry has been the Geraldine R. Segal Professor of American Social Thought and Professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania since 1987. In 1990-91, she served as President of the Organization of American Historians, one of the two principal professional associations of American historians. She has also held administrative posts at the University of Maryland and served as the Chancellor of the University of Colorado at Boulder.
Though Professor Berry is the holder of an endowed chair at an Ivy League university, she has almost no traditional academic credentials for holding such a position. According to her official bibliography, in the course of her university career she has authored no scholarly books (merely a series of texts whose titles reveal their ideological agendas) and only two peer-reviewed academic articles.
The first of these articles was published in 1991 in the Journal of American History. Titled "Judging Morality: Sexual Behavior and Legal Consequences in the 19th Century South," the piece begins in the following fashion: "The legal system supports our capitalist economic system. Because capitalism requires inequality, the only real question is who will be the repositories of the inequality. To date, black people have disproportionately been those repositories." This is a representative sample of her work.
The second article is a five-page composition titled "Vindicating Martin Luther King, Jr." which appeared in the Journal of Negro History in 1996.
Apart from her academic experience, Professor Berry has had a long career in government, which she began as an Assistant Secretary of Education in the former Cabinet Department of Health, Education, and Welfare under then-President Jimmy Carter. After Dr. Berry had returned from a trip to China and stated that Americans had no right to criticize Communist China's education system for requiring students to "develop what they call socialist consciousness and culture," Carter transferred her to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission. (Notably, Professor Berry was accustomed to carrying Mao Zedong's Little Red Book of Communist dicta in her purse.)
Denouncing America's systemic flaws, while comparing the nation unfavorably to Communist states, has been a longstanding practice for Professor Berry. She complained, for instance, that the U.S. media's "massive barrage of propaganda" had made black Americans blind to the Soviet Union's virtues, including its "safeguards for minorities," "equality of opportunity," and "equal provision of social services to its citizens." She characterized the 1960s as an era when blacks in America lived under a "threat of genocide" that was "roughly comparable" to what Jews faced in Hitler's Germany. And in an interview on National Public Radio in April 2005, she dismissed U.S. complaints of human rights violations in Castro's Cuba as examples of "the pot calling the kettle black."
Berry served on the U.S. Civil Rights Commission from 1980 until 2004. Ronald Reagan, early in his presidency, attempted to fire her from the Commission, arguing that as a political appointment she served at the pleasure of the President. But Berry sued and eventually won in federal district court the right to keep her post. President Clinton made her the Chairwoman of the Civil Rights Commission in 1993, a position she held until President George W. Bush eventually dismissed her in 2004 despite her determination to stay on past her constitutional term.
In Professor Berry's perspective, white racism remains an intractable and pervasive crisis in America. "The primary explanation for racially motivated violence against blacks," she says, "has been the need of a segment of the white population to preserve [its] belief in the inferiority of blacks, and to maintain the social and political subordination of an historically outcast group by any means, including violence."
Professor Berry is a strong advocate of racial preferences in employment and education. Scholar Dinesh D'Dsouza, in his book The End of Racism, quotes Berry's response to the suggestion that racial preferences are inconsistent with the mandates of civil rights laws: "Civil rights laws were not passed to give civil rights protection to all Americans," she said.
In Berry's opinion, Republican appointments of blacks such as Clarence Thomas, Condoleezza Rice, and Colin Powell to the highest positions of governmental authority and power were anti-black in intention. Their purpose, she contends, was to fool blacks into thinking that they lived in a nation where they could in fact succeed on merit, where whites were not plotting collectively to oppress them. This delusion, she explains, causes blacks to complacently accept a status quo that is far more oppressive and discriminatory than they realize. Says Professor Berry: "The reason there is no agitation among blacks -- I don't see any -- is because the symbolism is such that you could tell yourself -- until something happens to you -- that nothing is wrong. You could say, 'Look at Colin Powell. Blacks are everywhere. We can just do anything.'"
Berry's writing focuses almost entirely on racial issues and gender politics. Her books include: Black Resistance, White Law: A History of Constitutional Racism in America; The Pig Farmer's Daughter and Other Tales of American Justice: Episodes of Racism and Sexism in the Courts from 1865 to the Present; The Politics of Parenthood: Child Care, Women's Rights, and the Myth of the Good Mother; My Face Is Black Is True; Why ERA Failed: Politics, Women's Rights, and the Amending Process of the Constitution; Overcoming the Past, Focusing on the Future: An Assessment of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's Enforcement Efforts; Crisis of the Young African American Male in the Inner Cities; Health Care Challenge: Acknowledging Disparity, Confronting Discrimination, and Ensuring Equality; and Military Necessity and Civil Rights Policy: Black Citizenship and the Constitution, 1861-1868.
Berry has received many awards over the years, including the NAACP's Roy Wilkins Award, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference's Rosa Parks Award, the Ebony Magazine Black Achievement Award, and 32 honorary doctorates. She was designated one of the "Women of the Century" by the Women's Hall of Fame.
In June 1997, Berry was named Chairwoman of the Pacifica Radio Foundation's National Board.