I have to begin by thanking Attorney General Holder for the opportunity for this homecoming. It’s an honor to have been appointed to lead the Civil Rights Division after having dedicated so many years to it. I also have to thank you for constantly reminding all of us that the Division is a priority for you and for the President.
(Thanks to other program participants)
I was in a meeting recently with representatives from some civil rights organizations, and one of them relayed to me a story that struck a chord. They were talking to the editorial board of a prominent newspaper about the Administration’s commitment to revitalizing the Civil Rights Division, and a member of the board posed a question: Why do we still need a Civil Rights Division?
In 2009, nearly 50 years removed from the passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964; nearly a century and a half removed from the emancipation proclamation; and a year after the American people unwaveringly sent an African American family to the White House – why do we need a Civil Rights Division?
It’s an interesting and provocative question.
We have undeniably come a long way. An entire generation has passed since our nation’s leaders recognized the injustice of legal segregation. Women outnumber men in the workplace. We have an African American President, a Latina Supreme Court Justice and a female Speaker of the House. My parents probably couldn’t have imagined any of it, but my children are growing up to know nothing else.
There are some out there who think the task is complete, who would like to close the book and say we’ve fulfilled the promise of equal opportunity and justice for all.
And my job security aside, I wish they were right. I wish that last year’s historic election were the culmination rather than a checkpoint along the way.
But, as the late Senator Ted Kennedy often reminded us, Civil Rights are truly the unfinished business of America. Perhaps as much as any time in the last half century, we still need a Civil Rights Division.
We need a Civil Rights Division because, as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote from a narrow cell in Birmingham City Jail, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
And when three men are driven from their burning home by a neighbor because of the language they speak and the color of their skin, as recently happened in case that came across my desk, that is certainly a case of injustice and it is certainly a threat to justice nationwide.
We need a Civil Rights Division because, as President John F. Kennedy said as he introduced what became the Civil Rights Act of 1964, “…this Nation, for all its hopes and all its boasts, will not be fully free until all its citizens are free.”
And when our LGBT brothers and sisters are not afforded the same protections under the law as the rest of us, they are not free, and therefore our nation is not entirely free.
We need a Civil Rights Division because, as Hubert Humphrey said: "The moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; and those who are in shadows of life, the sick, the needy, and the handicapped."
And in 2009, despite great gains, too many reside in the shadows. Too many people of color find themselves powerless in the face of discriminatory housing and lending. Too many individuals with disabilities still struggle to access the basic services the rest of us take for granted. Too many students still lack the quality education all children are guaranteed by law. Too many new Americans who came to this nation seeking the same freedom and opportunities that our parents, and our grandparents sought, find themselves the targets of bigotry and hate.
We need a Civil Rights Divisions to bring these people out of the shadows. We need a Civil Rights Division to back up our nation’s promise of equal justice for all.
We need a Civil Rights Division because on the night that Barack Obama was elected the nation’s first African American president, four men on Staten Island set out to assault African Americans in retaliation.
We need a Civil Rights Division because extremists still think it’s their prerogative to murder a doctor because he provides a service with which they do not agree.
We need a Civil Rights Division because while we all thought we had long ago left behind the ways of the Jim Crow south, we read just last month in the newspaper about a Justice of the Peace who took it upon himself to decide that blacks and whites should not marry.
We need a Civil Rights Division because when the federal government comes into a community to right a wrong, our presence and our moral and legal authority make a huge difference and have a unique capacity to effect positive, lasting change.
We need a Civil Rights Division because it is the moral compass of our nation. It backs up with actions the promises made on paper by our nation’s civil rights laws. It serves as a guiding light as we navigate new paths on the road to equal justice.
The question is not “Why do we need a Civil Rights Division?”
Rather, the question we should ask ourselves is this: What does civil rights mean in the 21st Century?
I’ve had quite a bit of time to ponder this question.
Civil Rights in 2009 and beyond means continuing to combat the sort of blatant discrimination that persists, but also tackling the more subtle, and equally dangerous, discrimination that festers in so many of our institutions.
It means addressing the vast injustice done by the explosion in subprime lending and the subsequent foreclosure crisis, which, though it has touched every corner of our nation, has disproportionately impacted people of color and threatened the stability of their communities at far greater rates than their white counterparts. Unscrupulous lenders all too frequently have the corrosive power of fine print to trick hardworking people and tear apart communities. We have fair lending and fair housing laws on the books. We must enforce them fairly and aggressively and independently.
Civil Rights in 2009 means working to create services, programs and public facilities that are accessible to individuals with disabilities, recognizing that they have a vast contribution to make to our society and our communities that can only be maximized if they have equal access. It means recognizing that segregating people with disabilities in institutions is every bit as bad and illegal as segregating children of color in inferior schools.
It means understanding how the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks has subjected the Arab-American and Muslim-American communities to an unjustified backlash, and working to be sure we don’t fall into the trap of believing that we either protect our national security and safe streets OR we protect civil rights. We can and must do both.
Civil rights in 2009 means understanding that civil rights are human rights, and we are citizens of the world who must set the proper example for others. It means taking partnership to new and unprecedented levels – partnership with sister agencies, state and local governments, and, where appropriate, with private attorneys and non-profits, all the while remaining aware of the independence that we must maintain.
It means recognizing where our laws fall short, and working to fill the gaps. In this nation today, hardworking LGBT individuals are not even protected by our nation’s civil rights laws, and have no legal recourse against discrimination in the workplace. It is fundamentally unfair for my sister in law who is straight to enjoy protections against discrimination in the workplace, while my sister in law who is a lesbian has no protections. Civil Rights in 2009 means expanding the universe of individuals who are protected by the law. The recent enactment of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Protection Act was a good start in that direction.
Civil Rights in 2009 means restoring and transforming the Civil Rights Division – not in an effort to re-create the Civil Rights Division of an earlier era, but rather to prepare ourselves to tackle the challenges before us today, and to ensure we are nimble enough to address the challenges on the horizon.
In short, the Civil Rights Division is open for business. Our job is to enforce the civil rights laws – all the laws. Civil Rights Enforcement is not like the buffet line at the cafeteria. You can’t pick and choose which laws you like, and which ones you don’t. We will enforce all the laws in fair, aggressive and independent fashion, and we will use all the tools available to us.
I would like to close by noting that we are at a critical turning point. Just a year ago we all were basking in the glow of President Obama's election. To be sure, it was a spectacular achievement for a nation with such a long and complicated history of race relations. But as we look back over the history of the advancement of civil rights in our nation, each moment of great progress has been followed by periods of great challenge.
Thomas Jefferson wrote of the great self-evident truth – that all men are created equal, but it would be nearly a century before slavery was abolished in the land of the free.
Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation and later spoke of a new birth of freedom at Gettysburg, but the great promise of those moments was followed by decades of legal segregation, discrimination and hate.
In 1963, Dr. King wrote “we have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God given rights.” He and his fellow “drum majors for justice” helped secure those rights with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act the following year. And yet, today, 45 years later, injustice persists.
We have made great progress. But as we pass each benchmark, we must turn to face the new challenges ahead.
I am excited about what lies ahead, and I appreciate the sacrifices that my wife and children make day in and day out to enable me to take on these responsibilities. I know success will not be easy, but it is a great privilege to have been given this opportunity to return to my roots at the Civil Rights Division and to help lead it into its latest chapter in this epic story.