Good afternoon and thank you all for joining us today. I’d like to begin by thanking Joe and AUSA Debra Richards for organizing this conference, as well as for the remarkable work that this office does to protect the civil rights of those in the Indianapolis community and across the southern district of Indiana.
As many of you know, this year marks the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Over the past five decades, there is no doubt that we as a country have come a long way: many of the rights for which civil rights pioneers fought, bled, and gave their lives are now guaranteed by law. And during the past half century, we have seen tremendous progress not only legally but also in public attitudes and acceptance.
Yet for all that we have accomplished, much work remains. The Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division enforces the federal laws that prohibit discrimination and uphold the civil and constitutional rights of all who live in America. Our robust caseload is a stark reminder that too many in our nation continue to face barriers to equal opportunity.
Fifty years have passed since the height of the American Civil Rights Movement: 50 years since the March on Washington; since Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, since the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and nearly 50 years since the passage of the Voting Rights Act. As we contemplate a half-century of progress—and look to the work that remains—the Civil Rights Division takes very seriously our responsibility to address both longstanding and emerging civil rights challenges.
Fifty years ago, the March on Washington was held against the inescapable backdrop of Jim Crow. There were no effective federal protections against discrimination based on race. No effort to accommodate language minorities. No acknowledgement, much less protection of, LGBT individuals. Elite colleges and universities set quotas for the admission of women or prohibited them from attending altogether. Thankfully, over the past five decades, we have made significant progress on many of these issues.
I plan to focus my remarks today on the Division’s efforts to address the next generation of civil rights challenges—the civil rights challenges of the twenty-first century. To name but a few, these include addressing racial disparities in school discipline, defending the rights of LGBT Americans, combating discrimination in both housing and in lending, protecting women from sexual assault and harassment, ensuring the fair treatment of youth in the juvenile justice system, and defending the right to vote in the twenty-first century.
In recent months, the Civil Rights Division has reached landmark consent decrees involving each of these issues. These agreements will vindicate the rights of, and provide remedies for, the individuals who sought recourse in each of these specific cases. But we also hope that these agreements will serve as models for institutions across the country that are looking to voluntarily improve their own non-discrimination policies and practices.
Education is the foundation of the American dream—particularly for students who come from challenging circumstances, education provides a gateway to opportunities to climb the economic ladder and build a better life for themselves and their families. Sixty years ago, in his opinion in Brown v. Board of Education, Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote, “it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education.” Yet nearly six decades after this landmark decision, considerable work remains to provide equal educational opportunities to all of our nation’s students.
The Civil Rights Division maintains a substantial docket of long-standing desegregation cases where we strive to ensure that Brown’s promise is realized in all aspects of a school district’s operations. Even in its traditional forms, discrimination remains far too common in our schools. Far too many students still attend segregated schools where they are frequently taught by segregated faculties or are housed in unequal facilities. Even those enrolled in racially diverse schools too often are assigned to single-race classes, denied equal access to advanced courses, or separated by race in prom and homecoming events.
In recent months, we have devoted considerable resources to addressing a new form of exclusionary policy: disparities in school discipline. Too often, the effects of school discipline policies are not felt equally—students of color and those with disabilities receive more severe punishments than their peers for comparable misbehavior.
Last year, a Division investigation into disciplinary practices in the Meridian, Mississippi public school system found that black students frequently received far harsher disciplinary consequences than white students for comparable misbehavior. For example, one black student was suspended and subsequently arrested for wearing the wrong socks to school. Another black student was sprayed with mace and arrested after refusing to tuck in his shirt.
A minor school discipline offense should not land a student in a police precinct. In too many cases, the adverse effects of this early interaction with the juvenile or criminal justice systems can be permanent, depriving those caught up in the system of opportunities for educational advancement, employment, access to housing, and even the right to vote.
In response to the systemic problems in Meridian, the Division entered into a first-of-its-kind settlement with the Meridian school system to prevent and address racial discrimination in school discipline. Under the consent decree, the district will provide students with supports and interventions before excluding them from school; establish clear guidelines for the limited and extremely serious circumstances when law enforcement intervention is appropriate; and ensure that discipline consequences are fair and consistent.
The Division also reached an agreement with the School District of Palm Beach County, Florida to resolve complaints that the district’s system of discipline discriminated against students based on national origin and limited English proficiency. The district serves more than 179,000 students, including 20,000 English language learners (ELLs). The agreement requires that ELL students and parents who are limited English proficient receive translation and interpretation services throughout the discipline process, and it also requires school law enforcement officers to communicate with students in a language the student understands, including by securing an interpreter when appropriate.
To expand upon these enforcement efforts, the Departments of Justice and Education released guidance to public schools across the country on their obligations to administer student discipline without discrimination on the basis of race, color, or national origin. This guidance provides templates for schools to adopt effective disciplinary practices that avoid discrimination and take steps to keep all students in school. Through technical assistance documents like the discipline guidance, the Civil Rights Division attempts to ensure that our schools receive the support they need to keep young people in the classroom and out of the criminal justice system.
The Division’s work to ensure to ensure equal access to educational opportunities for all of our nation’s students extends well beyond the realm of school discipline. About one in five women is a survivor of attempted or completed sexual violence while in college. Given the troubling prevalence of sexual assault at institutions of higher education, in January, the president established a White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault. The Civil Rights Division is an active member of this task force, building on our experience enforcing Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 and Title IV of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Both of these statutes prohibit sex discrimination in education programs—including sexual assault and harassment.
Last year, the Division entered into an agreement with the University of Montana to address sexual harassment and assault on campus. The Division also completed an investigation of the failure of the University of Montana Office of Public Safety and the Missoula City Police to respond to sex crimes. This investigation revealed that the failure to investigate and pursue these crimes was motivated by gender bias. In May, the Division entered into comprehensive agreements with both police forces to achieve reforms to ensure that police services are delivered in a nondiscriminatory fashion, that sex crimes are investigated, and that victims are treated fairly and with respect. These agreements quickly resulted in important improvements in the way sexual assault reports are handled and victims are treated.
Additionally, the Civil Rights Division has achieved significant victories in its efforts defend the rights of LGBT students. Education is the great equalizer. Yet students cannot learn if they are afraid to go to school. Students cannot learn if they are being harassed and threatened. Students cannot learn if they feel that school administrators don’t and won’t protect them.
In a speech just a few weeks ago, Attorney General Eric Holder called LGBT rights one of the “civil rights challenges of our time.” And under his leadership, the Civil Rights Division has demonstrated its commitment to ensuring our schools foster safe and nurturing learning environments for all students, no matter their sexual orientation or gender identity.
In 2010, working with the Department of Education, the Civil Rights Division began investigating a complaint that the learning environment in the Anoka-Hennepin School District in Minnesota was unsafe and unwelcoming for students who did not conform to gender stereotypes, including LGBT students. Many students reported being harassed because they did not dress or act in ways that conform to gender stereotypes. Some students faced threats, physical violence, derogatory language, or other forms of harassment every day at school. Several of these students stopped attending school; a few even contemplated or attempted suicide.
In 2012, the Division reached a landmark settlement with the Anoka-Hennepin school district to address this harassment. The consent decree systemically reforms the district’s policies and practices related to harassment, and we hope it will serve as a blueprint for other districts who wish to create a safer learning environment for all students—including LGBT students.
Some of the major provisions of the consent decree require the district to enhance its training on sex-based harassment for faculty, staff, and students; retain an expert consultant in the area of mental health to address the needs of students who are targets of harassment; provide sustainable opportunities for student involvement in the district’s ongoing anti-harassment efforts; and improve its system for responding to reports of harassment.
Additionally, in 2013, the Division and the Department of Education entered into a first-of-its-kind settlement agreement with the Arcadia Unified School District to resolve allegations of discrimination against a transgender student based on the student’s sex. The student’s gender identity is male, and he has presented as a boy at school and in all other aspects of his life for several years. Yet prior to the agreement, the district prohibited the student from accessing facilities consistent with his male gender identity—including restrooms and locker rooms at school as well as sex-specific overnight accommodations at a school-sponsored trip. Under the agreement, the district will take steps to treat the student like other male students in all activities, and it will also adopt policies to ensure nondiscrimination for all students going forward.
The Civil Rights Division also works to defend the rights of LGBT individuals through the vigorous enforcement of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crime Prevention Act. The ability to live safely in one’s community is the most basic civil right. Throughout a diverse nation like ours, we all must be able to live and work without fear of being attacked because of how we look, what we believe, where we come from, or who we love.
Signed by President Obama in 2009, the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crime Prevention Act greatly expanded the federal government’s ability to prosecute hate crimes. Specifically, the law strengthened the Justice Department’s ability to prosecute crimes motivated by race, color, religion and national origin. The Act also empowers the department, for the first time, to prosecute crimes committed because of a person’s sexual orientation, gender identity, gender or disability as hate crimes.
Last year, a Justice Department investigation and prosecution in response to the beating of an Atlanta man resulted in the first conviction in Georgia under the sexual orientation provision of the Shepard-Byrd Act. In this case, two men pleaded guilty to assaulting a 20-year-old gay man as he left a grocery store in Atlanta’s Pittsburgh neighborhood. Video footage of the incident showed not only physical violence but also the use of anti-gay epithets. The two men were sentenced to serve 10 months in prison on federal hate crimes charges in addition to state charges.
President Obama, Attorney General Holder, and the Civil Rights Division also support the passage of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. No individual should be denied a job or the opportunity to earn promotions and pay raises because of who they are or who they love. If signed into law, a fully inclusive Employment Non-Discrimination Act would explicitly prohibit workplace discrimination based on actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity. The Senate passed a version of this critical legislation late last year, and we hope the House will take up this bill as well in the near future.
Finally, a number of Justice Department components, including the Civil Rights Division, are involved in evaluating and interpreting the Windsor decision’s application to federal programs. Just weeks ago, Attorney General Holder issued a policy memorandum that—for the first time in history—formally instructed all Justice Department employees to give lawful same-sex marriages full and equal recognition to the greatest extent possible under the law. This means that, in every courthouse, in every proceeding, and in every place where a member of the Department of Justice stands on behalf of the United States, they will strive to ensure that same-sex marriages receive the same privileges, protections, and rights as opposite-sex marriages under federal law.
Like access to education, access to housing is at the heart of the American dream. A family’s access to housing determines far more than whether they have a roof over their heads—it affects their access to good schools, to transportation, and to jobs. Ensuring that local governments and private housing providers offer safe and affordable housing on a non-discriminatory basis has been a priority of the Civil Rights Division for decades. But in 2014, a family’s access to housing is almost always linked to their access to credit. That’s why the Division has maintained its robust fair housing enforcement efforts while also reinvigorating its efforts to ensure that all qualified borrowers have equal access to fair and responsible lending.
Since its creation in 2010, the Division’s Fair Lending Unit has obtained more than $775 million in monetary relief for impacted communities—sending a clear message that the Obama administration will hold financial institutions of all sizes accountable for lending discrimination whenever and wherever it occurs.
While many communities nationwide were devastated during the housing and foreclosure crises, African American and Latino families were hit especially hard. Across the country, the Division found cases where qualified African American and Latino families paid more for loans because of their race or national origin, or were steered to more expensive and risky subprime loans. We also found some lenders who failed to offer credit in African American and Latino communities on an equal basis with white communities. We have recently expanded our investigative and enforcement efforts to include both mortgage and auto lending.
The Civil Rights Division has continued its strong track record of enforcement, last year working with the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau and the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan to reach a $98 million settlement with Ally Bank and Financial for pricing discrimination in its automobile lending practices.
The Equal Credit Opportunity Act bars creditors from discriminating against applicants on the basis of their race, color, religion, national origin, sex, marital status, or age. Yet between 2011 and 2013, African-American, Hispanic, and Asian/Pacific Islander borrowers who obtained loans from Ally Bank and Financial were too often forced to pay higher interest rates than similarly qualified white borrowers—a penalty based not on their creditworthiness or other objective criteria related to borrower risk, but on their race or national origin.
This complaint was the Division’s first against a national auto lender as well as its first joint fair lending enforcement action with the CFPB. The settlement provided $80 million in relief to the more than 200,000 minority borrowers who received higher interest rates due to their national origin or the color of their skin. Ally also agreed to pay an $18 million civil penalty to the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau and to institute safeguards to ensure that these discriminatory lending practices come to an end.
While many of our lending cases are based on statistics, we do also bring complaints in response to instances of outright, direct discrimination. Just weeks ago, the Division’s Fair Lending Unit filed a lawsuit to bring an end to lending discrimination at two used-car dealerships in Charlotte, North Carolina. Through a process known as “reverse redlining,” the dealerships targeted African-American customers for unfair and predatory credit practices in the financing of used car purchases. The operator of the dealerships also used racial slurs to refer to African-Americans and made statements expressing his views that African-American customers have fewer credit options, making them more likely to accept predatory contracts.
The Division is acutely aware of the impact that the criminal justice system has on communities of color. It remains an inescapable fact that disparities at nearly every stage of the criminal process keep too many African Americans, Latinos and other minorities in poverty and deny them the opportunities that so many in the civil rights movement fought to achieve.
Over the last five years the Division has obtained ground-breaking reform agreements with police departments that will serve as models for effective and constitutional policing nationwide. Every investigation involves a thorough examination of the challenges facing the police department, which may include the excessive use of force; unlawful stops, searches, or arrests; or policing that unlawfully discriminates against protected minority groups or women.
In recent years, the Division has expanded these efforts to better protect the rights of youth in the juvenile justice system. In Shelby County, Tenn., a Division investigation found that the juvenile court systemically violated the Due Process rights of youth in delinquency proceedings, as well as the Equal Protection rights of African-American youth. At every critical inflection point, we found that African-American youth were statistically more likely than similarly situated whites to be driven deeper into the juvenile justice system. And there was a significantly higher risk for young black men to be removed to the adult system than their white peers.
In response to these findings, the Division entered into a comprehensive settlement to ensure that children in Shelby County will receive the full protections provided under our Constitution. This agreement has already led to significant improvements, including the hiring of a juvenile defender, and will help make Shelby County a model for juvenile courts across the country. Moreover, data collected from this settlement will help us better understand what interventions work to keep children in the community and out of detention.
Lastly, as many of you know, the Civil Rights Division remains committed to ensuring that every eligible citizen has access to the ballot box. When he signed the Voting Rights Act in 1965, President Lyndon Johnson announced, “Millions of Americans are denied the right to vote because of their color. This law will ensure them the right to vote. The wrong is one which no American, in his heart, can justify. The right is one which no American, true to our principles, can deny.”
The right to vote is the bedrock of our democracy. Last summer, however, the Supreme Court invalidated a core provision of the Voting Rights Act in a case called Shelby County v. Holder. Prior to that ruling, certain states and localities with a history of voting discrimination were required to obtain federal review, or “preclearance,” before implementing any changes to their voting rules. But, as a result of the Court’s recent ruling, those states and localities are no longer required to seek preclearance before changing their voting rules and practices.
This disappointing decision eliminated one of the Justice Department’s most effective tools to combat discrimination in voting. But this setback has not tempered our resolve to ensure that every eligible citizen has access to the ballot box. In the words of Attorney General Eric Holder, the Justice Department “will not allow the Supreme Court’s recent decision to be interpreted as open season for states to pursue measures that suppress voting rights.”
The Department is committed to using the tools still available in the Voting Rights Act to prevent additional discrimination in voting laws. This includes Section 2 of the law, which allows the Justice Department to challenge practices that limit voting rights on the basis of race either intentionally or in effect. In the months after the Shelby County decision, the Civil Rights Division filed three Section 2 challenges, asking the courts in each case to subject the state to preclearance going forward:
In August, the Justice Department filed a lawsuit against the State of Texas to block the implementation of its highly restrictive photographic identification law for voting in person. At the same time, the Department also asked the court for permission to join another pending lawsuit in Texas to challenge the State’s 2011 redistricting plans for its Congressional delegation and its State House of Representatives. The Department’s complaints allege that the Voter ID law and the two redistricting plans are intentionally discriminatory and would deny Hispanics and African Americans an equal opportunity to vote.
Prior to the Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby County v. Holder, a federal court blocked the implementation of Texas’s voter ID law and the 2011 redistricting maps, concluding that they would have a discriminatory effect on Hispanic and African-American voters. But after the Shelby County decision, the Voting Rights Act no longer requires Texas to seek federal review before implementing changes to its voting laws, including the discriminatory photographic ID law and redistricting maps, and the lower court, therefore, vacated its previous decisions. Because we believe the threat to the rights of minority voters in Texas remains, the Attorney General felt compelled to act.
In September, the Justice Department also filed a lawsuit against the State of North Carolina over voting changes made by House Bill 589, which was signed into law in August 2013. The North Carolina law includes troubling new restrictions, such as provisions that will significantly reduce early voting days; eliminate same-day registration during early voting; impose a restrictive photo identification requirement for in-person voting; and prohibit the counting of otherwise legitimate provisional ballots that are mistakenly cast in the right county but in the wrong precinct. The Justice Department expects to show that the clear and intended effects of these changes would contract the electorate and result in unequal access to participation in the political process on account of race.
Allowing limits on voting rights that disproportionately exclude minority voters would be inconsistent with our ideals as a nation. And it would not be in keeping with the proud tradition of democracy that North Carolinians have built in recent years.
Existing statutes cannot completely replace the protections afforded by the portion of the Voting Rights Act that the Supreme Court struck down. As President Obama has noted repeatedly, it is the responsibility of Congress to pass legislation to fill the void left by the Supreme Court’s ruling. But the Civil Rights Division remains committed to using all available tools to ensure that Americans across the country can cast a ballot free from discrimination.
I’ve touched on only a few of the Division’s activities. We also do extensive work on issues related to disability, employment discrimination, language access, and national origin discrimination. Following the Supreme Court’s landmark Olmstead v. L.C. decision, the Civil Rights Division defends the right of individuals with disabilities to live and receive services in their communities rather than in institutions or other segregated settings. The Division vigorously enforces federal laws prohibiting discrimination in the workplace and ensures that all federal agencies abide by our government’s civil rights statutes. We enforce the anti-discrimination provision of the Immigration and Nationality Act to ensure employers do not deny employment opportunities to immigrants who are legally authorized to work or to subject these men and women to discriminatory employment eligibility verification procedures. And our Policy Section works to develop policy and legislative proposals to close the gaps in our nation’s civil rights protections.
The unfinished struggle for equal opportunity and justice is one in which we all have a part. This year, as we mark the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Civil Rights Division remains committed to combating discrimination in all its forms.
Thank you all for coming today. One of the things I value most about these trips is the opportunity to hear from you. As I understand it, I believe you all submitted questions regarding civil rights matters when you arrived at the registration desk; I’ll do my best to answer as many of them as possible now.