Justice News

Acting Assistant Attorney General Jocelyn Samuels Speaks at “Celebrating Our History & Commissioning Our Future: a Commemoration of the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964”
Milwaukee, WI
United States
Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Thank you for that kind introduction.  I’d like to thank United States Attorney James Santelle for inviting me to speak today and for the remarkable work that this office does to protect the civil rights of those in the Milwaukee community and across the Eastern District of Wisconsin.  Just last month, the Civil Rights Division worked hand-in-hand with the Eastern District’s talented team to prosecute a Milwaukee man for sex trafficking.  Thanks to this close collaboration we were able to secure guilty pleas on five counts. 

I’d also like to thank the cosponsors of today’s event – the NAACP Milwaukee Chapter, the Milwaukee Urban League and Centro Hispanico – both for their support of this event and for all of their work to advance the cause of civil rights.  Finally, thank you to all of you who came here today to celebrate this milestone in the continued fight for equality under the law.

Fifty years ago, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  With its landmark protections against discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex and religion, the act ended the era of legal segregation in America, relegating the age of Jim Crow to the history books.  As he prepared to sign the bill, President Lyndon B. Johnson announced the goal of the law – to ensure that all should “be equal in the polling booths, in the classrooms, in the factories, and in hotels, restaurants, movie theaters and other places that provide service to the public.”

Prior to the passage of the act, there were no effective federal protections against discrimination based on race.  No effort to accommodate language minorities.  No federal protections for Americans with disabilities.  Elite colleges and universities set quotas capping admission of women or prohibited them from attending altogether.  African-Americans, Hispanic-Americans and Asian-Americans were excluded from hospitals, restaurants and theaters.

Thankfully, in the decades since the passage of the Civil Rights Act, there is no doubt that we as a country have come a long way.  The act laid the groundwork for other critical federal civil rights statutes, including the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the Fair Housing Act of 1968 and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.  Many of the rights for which civil rights pioneers fought, bled and gave their lives are now guaranteed by law.

Yet civil rights is not an issue for the history books.  Sixty years after the Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education, too many children remain in segregated schools or are denied equal access to advanced courses.  Students are disciplined unfairly due to their race or separated by race in prom and homecoming events.  Discrimination in employment and housing contributes to social inequalities.  LGBT Americans continue to face discrimination and animus.  And for too many, the right to vote is still not effectively guaranteed.

Fifty years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, the Civil Rights Division’s robust caseload remains a stark reminder that too many in our nation continue to face barriers to equal opportunity.  As we contemplate a half-century of progress—and look to the work that remains—the Civil Rights Division does not waver in its responsibility to address both longstanding and emerging civil rights challenges.

Five decades after its passage, the Civil Rights Act continues to touch the lives of Americans across the country – and to serve as a potent tool for combating discrimination.  The Civil Rights Division maintains nearly 200 long-standing desegregation cases where we strive to ensure that Brown’s promise is realized in all aspects of a school district’s operations.  We aggressively enforce Title VII to ensure equal opportunity in the workplace.  In March, for example, the Department of Justice reached a settlement with the city of New York to resolve allegations that New York’s fire department discriminated against African-American and Hispanic applicants through its entry-level test.  The division uses Title VI of the act to work with court systems across the country to ensure that people with limited English proficiency are not denied equal justice.  And the Civil Rights Act’s core principle of equality under the law animates the work of the Civil Rights Division to the present day.

The Civil Rights Division is committed to eliminating crimes of hate, as true legal equality necessitates a freedom from fear.  The ability to live safely in one’s community is one of the most basic civil rights.  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 whom we love.  

The Milwaukee Sikh community recognizes this reality all too well.  Two years ago, a gunman fatally shot six people who were gathered in prayer at the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin in Oak Creek.  Attorney General Eric Holder spoke at the memorial service on behalf of the President of the United States, saying: 

“In the recent past, too many Sikhs have been targeted and victimized simply because of who they are, how they look and what they believe.  

“This is wrong.  It is unacceptable.  And it will not be tolerated.  We must ask necessary questions of ourselves: what kind of nation do we truly want to have?  Will we muster the courage to demand more of those who lead us and, just as importantly, of ourselves?  What will we do to prevent that which has brought us here today from occurring in the future?”

Today, as we near the two year anniversary of the attack, and remember those who lost their lives, I can promise you that the Justice Department will continue to combat hate crimes wherever they occur. 

Last week, I visited Philadelphia, Mississippi, to mark the 50th anniversary of the murders of James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman – civil rights workers who were killed while investigating a church burning as part of the Freedom Summer movement.  In 1964, when the state declined to prosecute their murderers, then-Assistant Attorney General John Doar flew down to personally investigate.  He pursued the investigation relentlessly, and ultimately convicted Deputy Sheriff Cecil Price, Ku Klux Klan Imperial Wizard Samuel Bowers and five others for that cold-blooded murder. 

Today, the Civil Rights Division continues to seek justice for the hate crimes of the 1960s: in 2003, a Civil Rights Division attorney working alongside the United States Attorney’s office in Jackson, Mississippi, successfully convicted former Klansman Ernest Avants for the 1966 murder of an African-American sharecropper named Ben Chester White.  In 2007, a Civil Rights Division attorney working alongside the same United States Attorney’s Office successfully convicted former Klansman James Ford Seale for the murders of 19-year-olds Charles Moore and Henry Dee.

In recent years, the passage of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crime Prevention Act has greatly increased the federal government’s ability to prosecute hate crimes.  Signed by President Obama in 2009, the act removed unnecessary jurisdictional obstacles in previous federal criminal laws that made the prosecution of certain racial and religious hate crimes unduly difficult.  It also empowers the department, for the first time, to prosecute crimes committed because of a person’s actual or perceived sexual orientation, gender identity, gender or disability as hate crimes.  Since 2009, we have used this law to indict individuals in 28 hate crimes cases, including at least eight cases involving attacks on LGBT individuals, and the first ever hate crimes case involving the abuse of individuals with disabilities.

The division’s expanded ability to prosecute hate crimes reflects our effort to address the civil rights challenges of the 21st century.  To name but a few, these challenges include addressing racial disparities in school discipline, defending the rights of LGBT Americans, combating discrimination in both housing and in lending, ensuring the fair treatment of youth in the juvenile justice system and defending the right to vote in the 21st century.

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.

In recent months, we have devoted considerable resources to addressing a modern form of school exclusion: 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.  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.

With the cooperation of the Meridian School Board, the division entered into a first-of-its-kind settlement 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.

Earlier this year, 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.

Additionally, the Civil Rights Division has achieved significant victories in its efforts to defend the rights of LGBT students.  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 or won’t protect them.

In a speech earlier this year, Attorney General 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 that 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 accommodate their students’ needs.

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 treat the student like other male students in all activities, and it will also adopt policies to ensure nondiscrimination for all students going forward.

Through our enforcement of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the division works hard to prevent discrimination on the basis of disability status.  Work is a fundamental part of adult life for people with and without disabilities.  It provides a sense of purpose, shaping who we are and how we fit into our community.  Meaningful work – being a contributing part of society – is essential to economic self-sufficiency, as well as self-esteem and well-being.  That’s why the division works hard to ensure implementation of the Supreme Court’s landmark Olmstead v. L.C. decision, which made clear the right of individuals with disabilities to live and receive services in their communities rather than in institutions or other segregated settings.  Our Olmstead enforcement work from 2009 to 2014 has helped protect the rights of over 46,000 people with disabilities, ensuring they will have the opportunity to participate fully in their communities.  In Fiscal Year 2013, the division continued its strong track record on this issue, participating in 18 Olmstead matters across the country.  These cases have benefitted people of all ages and all types of disabilities.

In April of this year, the Justice Department reached a settlement with the state of Rhode Island on behalf of more than 3,000 Rhode Islanders with intellectual and developmental disabilities.  Prior to this year, the vast majority of these Rhode Islanders were consigned to sheltered workshops, where they rarely had contact with people without disabilities, performed rote menial tasks and were paid well below the minimum wage.  These workers were capable of working integrated jobs within their communities, and yet were unauthorized to do so.  This unnecessary segregation was harmful, both to those directly affected and to the community as a whole.

In response, the Justice Department, the state of Rhode Island and the business community came together to embrace real integration of people with disabilities – committing to make the state a model for others to follow.

As a result of this settlement, Rhode Islanders with intellectual and developmental disabilities will have opportunities to work real jobs with competitive wages.  State funding previously used for segregated, separate day programs will be re-directed to provide integrated options for non-work hours.  And students with disabilities will get transition services starting at age 14 so that when they leave school, they can transition into the work force. 

This settlement is already improving the lives of Rhode Islanders.  For 30 years, a Rhode Island man with disabilities named Steven did what millions of Americans do every day: he got up and reported to work.  But for most of Steven's life, he had little choice other than to work in a sheltered workshop where he earned $2 an hour.  Steven didn’t expect to spend 30 years working there – even the name of the program, “Training Thru Placement,” suggested that a brighter future lay ahead.  But a lack of employment services and supports kept Steven in a segregated low-wage work environment.  Now, Steven has transitioned to an integrated office setting, where he earns minimum wage and has been receiving computer training.

A young man named Pedro, who spent his high school years unpacking and sorting buttons, was forced on graduation to take a sheltered workshop job paying just 48 cents an hour.  Now, he is working in a restaurant, where he was recently named employee of the month.  His progress has been so rapid that he no longer needs a job coach – instead, he helps his former coach assist other employees with disabilities.  These stories illustrate the transformative power of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Olmstead decision; the Civil Rights Division is proud to continue to build on their promises. 

Let me turn to access to housing, which stands 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 division priority for decades.  But in 2014, a family’s access to housing is almost always linked to its 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 $1 billion in monetary relief for impacted communities—sending a clear message that financial institutions of all sizes will be held 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.

Two weeks ago, the division joined the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) to announce an $169 million settlement with GE Retail Capital Bank, recently renamed to Synchrony.  The bank engaged in a nationwide pattern or practice of discrimination by excluding Hispanic borrowers from two of its credit card debt-repayment programs.  The bank offered credit relief to its cardholders, but denied that relief to borrowers who requested information in Spanish, or who had mailing addresses in Puerto Rico.  Lending discrimination in any form is unacceptable, and this settlement – the largest credit card discrimination settlement in history – was an important victory in the fight for equal financial opportunity.

The division has also recently expanded our enforcement efforts to include auto lending.  For example, working with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan, the Civil Rights Division reached a $98 million settlement with Ally Bank and Financial last year for pricing discrimination in its automobile lending practices.  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.

In addition, 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 groundbreaking 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 its efforts to better protect the rights of youth in the juvenile justice system.  In Shelby County, Tennessee, 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.

Finally, I want to discuss the Civil Rights Division’s work in safeguarding every eligible citizen’s 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 Voting Rights Act of 1965 has played a critical role in ensuring that the right to vote is not abridged based on discrimination against racial or language minorities.  In thehalf-century since its passage, the Voting Rights Act has consistently enjoyed bipartisan support in Congress, as well as support from the executive branch.  Notably, after extensive hearings, Sections 4 and 5 of the act were reauthorized most recently in 2006, with the unanimous support of the U.S. Senate and the near-unanimous support of the House of Representatives.  Yet in 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Shelby County v. Holder invalidated an essential part of this cornerstone civil rights law.  This decision represents a serious setback for voting rights – and has the potential to negatively affect millions of Americans across the country. 

There are many examples demonstrating that discrimination in voting has not been consigned to history.  Our country has changed for the better since 1965, but the destination we seek has not yet been reached.  This is why the Department of Justice will continue to carefully monitor jurisdictions around the country for voting changes that may hamper voting rights.  We will not hesitate to take swift enforcement action – using every legal tool that remains available to us – against any jurisdiction that seeks to take advantage of the Supreme Court’s ruling by hindering eligible citizens’ full and free exercise of the franchise. 

Since the Supreme Court’s decision, the Civil Rights Division has filed three cases under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act.  One complaint challenges the legality of Texas’ congressional and legislative redistricting maps - maps which prior to the Shelby County decision were blocked by federal courts for intentionally discriminating against Latino and African-American citizens.  A second complaint challenges Texas’s restrictive photo identification requirement as racially discriminatory in both purpose and effect.

And a third complaint challenges portions of a restrictive North Carolina voting law, passed within days of the Shelby County decision, that limits the number of early voting days, eliminates same-day registration during early voting; imposes a restrictive photo identification requirement for in-person voting; and prohibits the counting of otherwise legitimate provisional ballots that are mistakenly cast in the right county, but in the wrong precinct.  These changes were made despite evidence before the North Carolina General Assembly that such action would make it harder for many minority voters to participate in the electoral process.  Trials in all three of these voting rights cases are beginning this summer.

In June, Attorney General Holder announced the administration’s plans to consult with tribes on ensuring that American Indians and Alaska Natives have a meaningful opportunity to claim their right to vote.  It is a tragic irony that in this country – history's greatest democratic experiment – it is First Americans who have, for decades, too often been deprived the right to vote.  Standing by as Native voices are shut out of the democratic process is not an option.  That is why the Justice Department supports providing voters on Indian reservations and in Alaska Native villages with an effective opportunity to cast a ballot.  We seek formal consultation on a proposal that would give American Indian and Alaska Natives a polling place in their community, somewhere to cast their ballots and ensure their voices are heard – something most other citizens already take for granted.

Last week, the Attorney General made a statement on the one-year anniversary of the Shelby decision.  In addition to discussing the work just described, he referred to a voting rights controversy happening here in Wisconsin.  I’d like to read you what he said: 

“In April, a federal district court in Wisconsin ruled that Wisconsin’s unnecessarily restrictive voter-ID law, which disproportionately impacted the state’s African-American and Latino voters, violated both the equal protection clause of the Constitution and Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act.

“The Wisconsin law erected significant barriers to equal access without serving any legitimate government interest – because, as the judge found, and I quote, ‘The defendants could not point to a single instance of known voter impersonation occurring in Wisconsin at any time in the recent past.’

“By restricting access and decreasing voter participation, laws such as those in Wisconsin would shrink – rather than expand – access to the franchise.

“This is inconsistent not only with our history, but with our ideals as a nation – a nation founded on the principle that all citizens are entitled to equal opportunity, equal representation, and equal rights.

“And that’s why, across this country, the Department of Justice will continue to take aggressive steps to stand against disenfranchisement wherever it exists – and in whatever form.”

The Civil Rights Division recognizes that case-by-case litigation is no substitute for Congressional action on legislation to fill the void left by the Supreme Court’s Shelby decision.  President Obama and Attorney General Holder remain committed to working with leaders from across the political spectrum to ensure that modern voting protections are adequate to the challenges of the 21st century.  History shows that advances in voting rights have been hard-won, and that progress is not inevitable: the Department of Justice will never abdicate its responsibility to protect and preserve this critical right.

I’ve touched on only a few of the division’s activities.  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 verification procedures.  And our Policy Section works to develop policy and legislative proposals to close the gaps in our nation’s civil rights protections.

Five decades after its passage, the Civil Rights Act continues to touch the lives of Americans across the country – and to serve as a potent tool for combating discrimination.  As we contemplate a half-century of progress—and look to the work that remains—the Civil Rights Division remains committed to its mission to protect, defend and advance civil rights in our nation.  Together, in collaboration with all here today, we will continue to work to ensure equal justice under the law.  Thank you.

Updated September 17, 2014