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Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke Delivers Remarks at the Civil Rights Division’s 65th Anniversary


Washington, DC
United States

Remarks as Prepared for Delivery

Nearly 62 years ago, James Meredith wrote to this department seeking help in overcoming the brick wall of state-sanctioned racism that blocked his admission to the University of Mississippi. He described a social structure of discrimination in Mississippi that was violent, entrenched and pervasive.

“I was born on a small farm in Attala County, Mississippi,” Meredith said. “The seventh of 13 children. I walked to school, over four miles each way, every day for 11 years. . . . [T]he White school bus passed us each and every morning. Of course, there was no Negro school bus. I never had a teacher during grade and high school with a college degree. . . . [But] I was indeed fortunate, because each day I passed [farms] with boys my own age and younger that fed cows all day and to this day most of them can’t even read road signs.”

Meredith asked the department to use “the power and influence of the federal government [to] ensure compliance with the laws as interpreted by the proper authority.” The Civil Rights Division heeded the call. The effort required intensive litigation and deployment of 31,000 armed soldiers, but in September 1962, the division’s deputy, John Doar, walked side-by-side with Meredith to register him at the university. Today, the University of Mississippi has a statue of Meredith that celebrates his courage in integrating the school.

Meredith’s experience highlights both the progress we have made and the centrality of the Civil Rights Division in our nation’s long pursuit of justice. In part because of cases we litigated and policies we pursued, whites-only buses no longer roll past Black children walking to school. The law no longer forces separation of the races. People of color no longer require the protection of federal troops to vindicate basic rights.

But despite the progress, we know that the Civil Rights Division is needed now more than ever. The racial hatred that required deployment of 31,000 troops in 1962 still persists today. In 2020, reported hate crimes rose to their highest levels in nearly two decades. More than 60% were motivated by race and ethnicity. More than half of those targeted Black people. We are also confronting antisemitism, anti-Asian, anti-LGBTQ, and anti-Muslim bias. In recent years, purveyors of hate in multiple cities, from Charlottesville to Pittsburgh and from Buffalo to El Paso, have massacred innocent people based on their race, religion or sexual orientation.

Longstanding economic discrimination continues, and the enduring consequences are devastating. Largely because of redlining — discrimination in mortgage lending based on the racial composition of a neighborhood — the median wealth of a Black family today is approximately $24,000, compared to $188,000 for a white family. Today, white families are 30% more likely to own a home than Black families are.

In addition, voting — the right the Supreme Court once described as “preservative of all other rights” — is under assault. In 2013, the Court in Shelby County, Alabama vs. Holder, struck down the division’s authority under the Voting Rights Act to review and clear voting changes by certain jurisdictions with long histories of voting discrimination. The ruling ushered in a boom market of voter suppression across the country. And now, Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, another critical tool to battle voter suppression, is being further eroded in the courts.

And this year, in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the Court, for the first time in living memory, took away an established constitutional right, a woman’s freedom to make the most personal, fundamental decisions about her own body.

Nevertheless, I firmly believe in the opportunity for progress on civil rights in this country. I reject the defeatist predictions of decline and stagnation. Yes, we have work to do, but we at the Civil Rights Division are soldiering forward every day. We have challenges, but we  are meeting them. We are on the front lines of our nation’s modern day Civil Rights Movement and we are waging battle on multiple fronts. And far more than some may appreciate, we are winning; we are striking important blows for equality, for freedom and for the rule of law. We are making significant strides when it comes to some of the most pressing issues of our time – the need for law enforcement accountability, the need to eliminate hate root and branch, and the need to safeguard the rights of the most vulnerable among us.

Let’s start with hate crimes — threats, physical attacks, attacks on houses of worship, and mass murder. All of these events terrorize not only individuals and families, but entire communities because of their race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, ethnicity and gender or gender identity. These atrocities threaten public safety, breed fear and insecurity, and demean human dignity. We will not tolerate the resurgence of hate. We are fighting it with every tool we have. The words of the prophet Isaiah mark our commitment: “This shall not stand.”

Since January of last year, we have charged more than 55 people with hate crimes, and convicted more than 40. We have prosecuted hate crimes based on race, religion, sexual orientation, gender and gender identity.

We secured guilty verdicts on federal hate crime charges against all three men who killed Ahmaud Arbery. And the evidence at trial revealed that the defendants’ strong racist beliefs led them to attack Mr. Arbery because he was a Black man. One defendant said he associated Black people with criminality and wanted to see them killed or harmed.

We obtained a 27-count indictment against the individual charged with killing 10 people in Buffalo, New York, just because they were Black.

And just last Friday, we secured a guilty plea from a white man in Mississippi who burned a cross on his front lawn intended to intimidate and instill fear in his Black neighbors. Also on Friday, a man in Nebraska was sentenced for leaving a noose – one of the most vile symbols in American history – to convey a threat of violence to a Black coworker. This is what hate in America looks like in 2022.

The trust that is so essential between law enforcement and the communities they serve rests on the rule of law, including scrupulous respect for constitutional rights. Every day, police officers put themselves in harm’s way to protect others. Most officers in the nation’s more than 18,000 law enforcement agencies, perform their duties with professionalism, bravery and integrity. But experience shows that unconstitutional conduct by police officers severely undermines both trust and public safety.

Since January of last year, the department has charged more than 50 defendants for willfully violating the constitutional rights of victims, and convicted more than 40. This number includes the convictions of all four police officers involved in the tragic killing of George Floyd.

The Civil Rights Division investigates and litigates civil cases involving “a pattern or practice of misconduct by law enforcement officers” that violates constitutional or federal rights. Our investigations focus on systemic reform of widespread practices and institutional change within police departments to safeguard the rights to be free from excessive force; unreasonable stops and searches; arrests without warrants or sufficient cause or in retaliation for exercising free speech rights.

In 2021 and 2022, we announced eight new pattern-or-practice investigations into the police departments of Louisville, Kentucky; Minneapolis, Minnesota; Phoenix, Arizona; Mount Vernon, New York; and Worcester, Massachusetts; the Special Victims Division of the New York City Police Department; the Louisiana State Police; and the Oklahoma City Police Department.

We also enforce the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Under that statute, we are investigating the practice of dispatching law enforcement officers in response to 911 or emergency calls involving people with mental health disabilities, rather than sending a mental health crisis team in appropriate circumstances. Just as we send an ambulance or a medic for a heart attack or diabetic emergency, communities should send a mental health team for a mental health crisis where it is feasible and appropriate. Exclusively dispatching law enforcement responders in such situations can unnecessarily escalate the crises, resulting at times in violence and death. About one fourth of all people killed by police are experiencing mental health issues.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, national origin, sex and religion. And here we are investigating whether state and local government employers have engaged in a “pattern or practice” of employment discrimination. We have several open pattern-or-practice investigations involving law enforcement employers, including seven authorized since January 2021.

Over the summer, we received court approval of our proposal to remedy race discrimination against applicants to the Baltimore County Police Department. The settlement requires Baltimore County to provide $2 million in back pay to Black applicants prevented from joining the department as police cadets or entry-level police officers. The department also must hire on a priority basis up to 20 qualified applicants who faced discrimination and develop new, lawful selection procedures for applicants.

Similarly, we enforce Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits recipients of federal financial assistance from discriminating based on race, color, or national origin. We have used our authority under Title VI to help implement the department’s comprehensive environmental justice strategy, addressing the disproportionate impact of environmental violations on Black and brown communities, including indigenous, and low-income communities. Under Title VI, we opened environmental justice investigations in Lowndes County, Alabama, where people face lack of access to adequate wastewater treatment and sewage removal systems, and we are investigating illegal dumping in Houston, Texas. No one in the United States should be exposed to illness or disease because of the harms that result from environmental racism.

Combating discrimination in student discipline is also a high priority. In September of last year, the Division and the Utah U.S. Attorney’s Office found that the Davis School District improperly subjected Black students to harsher discipline than their white peers for similar behavior. A Black third-grader, for example, received a 10-day suspension for bringing a bottle opener to school while a white fourth grader who brought a knife faced only a conference with administrators. The agreement required the District to revise its policies; train staff; engage students, parents community members to improve school culture and climate; and collect and analyze data. This work is part of our ongoing commitment to fulfilling the goals underlying Brown v. Board of Education and ensuring that all students have access to safe and equitable learning environments in our country.

I mentioned earlier the devastating effects borne by modern day redlining. The Civil Rights Division has responded with a new and unprecedented nationwide initiative to investigate redlining by banks and mortgage lenders. In July, we secured the second-largest redlining settlement ever against Trident Mortgage Company which had denied communities of color in the Philadelphia metropolitan area equal access to residential mortgages, stripped them of the opportunity to build wealth, and devalued properties in their neighborhoods. Right now, Trident is investing more than $20 million to increase credit opportunities in neighborhoods of color in Philadelphia. And this work continues.

With regard to the all-important right to vote, we are working every day to ensure that all eligible voters have voice in our democracy.

We have filed multiple lawsuits to protect voting rights for all Americans:

  • In Texas, we sued to stop Senate Bill 1, which impairs the rights of Black and Latino voters to vote absentee and, when they vote in person, to receive help in the voting booth from their assistors of choice.
  • We challenged redistricting plans in Galveston County, Texas, that deny Black and Latino voters an equal opportunity to elect candidates of choice.
  • And when armed individuals stationed themselves outside of drop-boxes in Arizona during the general election, we stepped in to provide our views to the court on the interpretation and application of Section 11(b) of the Voting Rights Act which prohibits voter intimidation.

Many thousands of Americans fought and died to secure the right to vote. Civil rights leaders and ordinary citizens were attacked, brutalized, even lynched, just for claiming this most basic right. We will not forsake the sacrifices of these heroes. We will not break faith with them by surrendering the progress we have made. We will fight to ensure that every eligible individual can exercise the constitutional right to vote.

America must remain steadfast in our commitment to ensuring equal justice under law for all in our nation. As we mark our 65th anniversary, the Civil Rights Division is seizing this moment to double down on own on our efforts to expand opportunity and justice for all Americans. We know that civil rights enforcement is key to making our country better, our democracy more enduring and our nation more whole and just. Thank you.

Civil Rights
Updated December 6, 2022