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Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke Delivers Remarks at Dillard University’s 10th Annual Justice Revius O. Ortique Jr. Lecture on Law and Society


New Orleans, LA
United States

Remarks as Prepared

Thank you, President Kimbrough, for that kind introduction and the invitation to speak tonight.

I also want to acknowledge Dillard Alumni Michael and Shaun Jones on your remarkable contributions to the Dillard University community. Today’s naming of Jones Hall is a well-deserved honor. Congratulations!

Finally, thank you to Dillard University for showing up tonight. It is a privilege for me to be here at the 10th Annual Ortique Lecture, and it is a special treat that I am able to be here in New Orleans. After the past 18 months I am grateful for this opportunity to be here with you all in person, instead of on a computer screen. It is so good to be able to be together again.

Before I start telling you about the work of the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division, I want to tell you a bit about a man who I never met but who helped me get to this lectern here tonight – the man who serves as the namesake of this evening’s lecture, Justice Revius Ortique, Jr.

Justice Ortique’s life was one of remarkable public service, rooted in a drive to push our nation ever-closer to its ideals.

After serving as an Army Officer in the Pacific during World War II, Justice Ortique came here to Dillard to earn his Bachelor’s degree before earning his Master’s at Indiana University and his law degree at Southern University.

Justice Ortique was a fearless young attorney, setting up his own private practice to take on labor and civil rights cases throughout Louisiana.

In one of his most notable cases, Volger v. McCarthy, then-Counselor Ortique challenged a New Orleans Labor Union that refused membership to Black and Latino Construction and Insulation Workers. The union had a virtual monopoly on insulation work in the New Orleans and Baton Rouge metro areas. So, excluding Black and Latino workers from the union kept them out of a lucrative industry entirely. Counselor Ortique successfully argued that this amounted to a pattern or practice of discrimination within the meaning of the newly passed Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Union was forced to eliminate its discriminatory policies and take proactive steps to include Black and Latino Union Members.

In 1978, Ortique’s legal brilliance led him to being appointed as a judge on the Louisiana District Court, where he served until 1992. He was then elected to the Louisiana State Supreme Court, becoming the first Black Justice to sit on that bench.

Justice Ortique earned a reputation for being a relentless worker and, in the words of the great Sybil Morial, having “integrity beyond Reproach.” His passionate, steady and calming approach to his work helped him thrive as a civil rights leader.

But Justice Ortique’s work was not merely about the law. It was always about the people. The -people he represented, the people he worked with, the people who worked opposite him.

This people-first approach helped Justice Ortique advance the civil rights movement in monumental ways outside the courtroom. I just mentioned Sybil Morial, who was the widow of New Orleans’ first black Mayor and the mother of former Mayor Marc Morial. In reflecting on Justice Ortique’s life, she said, “There were many factions then working for various things — boycotts for jobs, use of restrooms, lunch counters. He was one of the negotiators for all the groups. He had credibility with both the  white and Black communities.”

In recognition of his outstanding leadership, Justice Ortique was elected president of the Urban League of New Orleans five times. And later, he was elected President of the National Bar Association. It was at the National Bar Association where he achieved one of his most profound accomplishments.

In 1969, Justice Ortique worked with a group of advocates to successfully convince President Johnson to appoint Black Judges to federal courts — including one of the most important Justices in American history: Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. These efforts not only fundamentally changed our justice system, they inspired countless young civil rights advocates to pick up the torch.

I am one of those advocates. I know that without the work of Justice Ortique, I would not be here today as the first Senate-confirmed Black woman to lead the Civil Rights Division.

Justice Ortique helped pave the way for so many others, including Justice Bernette Johnson. As the first Black Woman to serve on the Louisiana State Supreme Court, Justice Johnson is a titan in her own right, serving as its Chief Justice from 2013 till 2020.

I truly am grateful to be here working to continue the march toward justice that Justice Ortique helped drive forward.

As Justice Ortique himself liked to say, we are all standing on the shoulders of the giants that came before us. At the Department of Justice and the Civil Rights Division, we are privileged to carry on the legacy of leaders like Justice Ortique by addressing the most pressing civil rights issues of our time. I want to talk with you today about some of the ways we are doing that, including our efforts to protect communities by enforcing hate crimes laws, to improve the criminal justice system, to protect equal housing opportunity and to safeguard the sacred right to vote.  

There has been a rise in hate crimes and hate incidents across the country this past year. Specifically, FBI statistics show that there was a rise in hate crimes committed against Black people, who are already the group most often targeted. The FBI’s report also showed a terrifying 70% increase in anti-Asian violence.

The Department of Justice and the Civil Rights Division are committed to upholding every person’s constitutional right to live free from hate-based violence and intimidation. Combatting hate crimes and hate incidents is a top priority for the Department of Justice.

Just a few weeks ago, more than 1,000 people attended the Civil Rights Division’s virtual conference on the problem of hate. At the conference, we heard from victims and advocates, including Taylor Dumpson, a young attorney who was the victim of a racially-motivated hate crime in 2017, during her junior year of college at American University. Soon after Ms. Dumpson became the first Black woman to be elected president of the student government at her college, unknown perpetrators targeted her by hanging bananas from nooses on trees. The DOJ, along with university police, the FBI and D.C. Metropolitan Police, investigated this incident as a hate crime. Soon after this hate crime made the news, however, Ms. Dumpson became the victim of a cyber harassment campaign, encouraged by the  white supremacist website the Daily Stormer.

As you can imagine, all of this took a terrible toll on Ms. Dumpson. She couldn’t finish out the semester and had to complete her coursework over the summer; she put up security cameras at home; and she had to completely change how she navigated her life, especially on campus. She was diagnosed with depression, anxiety, and PTSD.

At our conference, Ms. Dumpson spoke powerfully about her experiences. She urged us to remember that hate should never be normalized, and that victims of hate crimes should not have to “jump through hurdles” to obtain justice. She also reminded us that both hate crimes prosecutions and alternatives like restorative justice are critical to tackling the problem of hate.

As prosecutors of federal hate crimes, we at the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice take Ms. Dumpson’s charge seriously. We know that our response to the increase in hate crimes must be targeted, swift, and effective. The same is true for what are called “hate incidents” – acts of bias and discrimination that, while perhaps not criminal, instill fear and perpetuate inequality. In fact, Attorney General Garland’s very first directive to the Justice Department was to order an expedited internal review to determine how the department could deploy all the tools at its disposal to counter the rise in hate crimes and hate incidents. This includes increased law enforcement training and coordination, improved incident reporting and more aggressive community outreach.

The division has also increased our prosecution rate. This year alone, more than 20 people have been charged in more than 15 different cases. One of these cases involved the April indictment of three men who were charged with hate crimes resulting from the murder of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia.

More than 20 defendants have also been convicted this year. In June, we obtained a life sentence for a man who murdered grocery store shoppers in Kentucky because they were Black. As part of his guilty plea, the defendant admitted that he drove to a Kroger store armed with a firearm and followed a Black man and his grandson shopping in the store before shooting the grandfather in the back of the head. He then went on to shoot and kill a Black woman in the Kroger parking lot, and just moments later, he shot at yet another victim. His motive? He admitted that he shot the victims because of their race.

And this fall, we also obtained a guilty plea from a man who, in the spring of 2019, killed one person and wounded three others at the Chabad of Poway Synagogue in southern California. Approximately one month earlier, the same man had attempted to set fire to the nearby Dar-ul-Arqam Mosque. The department charged the shooter in a 113-count indictment that included numerous hate crimes charges. The shooter pleaded guilty on all counts and agreed to spend life in prison without parole.

Sadly, there are many more stories like these I could share. But these prosecutions help highlight why this work is so important. Enforcing hate crimes laws sends a powerful message to those who are affected, and to the broader community: that they are valued, that their communities are important, and that the federal government will not stand by when they are targeted.

The Department of Justice is also working to combat hate by using tools other than prosecutions. For example, the Attorney General has recently worked to improve the federal government’s ability to track and respond to hate crimes. This is in line with new hate crimes legislation passed earlier this year, called the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act and the Jabara-Heyer No Hate Act.

Law enforcement’s non-reporting and under-reporting of hate crimes has been a longstanding problem. According to FBI statistics, 86% of the agencies that participated in the FBI’s 2019 survey reported zero hate crimes in all of 2019. Those numbers just don’t track what we all know to be true. And when jurisdictions do report, their numbers are often far lower than you’d expect given their populations. For example, Miami-Dade County has a population of nearly three million people, but reported only five hate crimes in 2019. If we want to fully address this problem, we need to have an accurate understanding of it.

We also know that hate crimes, hate incidents and other forms of discrimination are chronically underreported by the people who experience them. We recognize that this underreporting is rooted in a historic lack of trust between affected communities and law enforcement. The department is working to build that trust and to ensure that incidents of hate are reported so that we can investigate and prosecute them.

For instance, the department is revitalizing its Community Relations Service, or CRS, also known as “America’s Peacemaker.” This program provides facilitated dialogue, mediation, training, and consultation for communities facing bias-related conflict. The CRS was established more than 60 years ago by the Civil Rights Act and has a history of working alongside communities during periods of intense strife. They were on the ground after the 1992 Los Angeles Riots, the 2014 Ferguson protests, the massacre of nine Black Americans at the church in Charleston, South Carolina and in the aftermath of the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Justice Mediators helped these communities process these terrible tragedies, and also work to heal the long-standing and systemic divides that created the environment that led to these explosive events in the first place.

Another critical way to build trust with the community is through ensuring the justice system is a transparent and constitutionally sound.

Here, I want to talk about the Civil Rights Division’s criminal justice work in three areas: our investigations into patterns or practices of misconduct by law enforcement agencies, prosecutions of individual law enforcement officers who commit misconduct and investigations of constitutional abuses occurring in prisons and jails. These are the legal tools with which the Civil Rights Division can help effect criminal justice reform nationwide. I will discuss each in turn.

Last summer’s protests following the death of George Floyd shined a bright light on racial justice issues that have long been problems. And, rightly, this brought a renewed focus on the department’s investigations of allegations of systemic misconduct by law enforcement.

These investigations are formally known as “pattern or practice investigations,” and they reflect a unique and critically important authority vested in the Department of Justice. Through these pattern or practice investigations, the department is able to review allegations that law enforcement officers have violated constitutional or federal rights. When we investigate these cases, the rights we tend to focus on include 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; and discrimination based on factors such as race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, disability and sex — including sexual orientation and gender identity.

Pattern-or-practice investigations are one of the department’s primary tools for ensuring there is legitimacy during encounters between law enforcement officers and the community members they serve. These investigations are resource-intensive, but they can have a huge impact. Rather than addressing isolated or sporadic instances of police misconduct, these investigations typically focus on systemic and widespread police practices and seek to create institutional change within police departments.

My colleagues and I are often asked about how these investigations work and what changes can result, so I’ll take a moment to talk about that now. When we are considering opening a pattern or practice investigation, the department looks at a number of factors, including the nature and seriousness of the allegations, the history of the department, what the department may already be doing to address the allegations, court files, media reports, citizen complaints, and reports from law enforcement partners. And where we do decide to open investigations, the department conducts an extensive review. Investigators meet with officers and command staff; go on ride-alongs with officers; and review incident reports, body worn camera footage, department policies, training materials, supervision records, and more.

We look at all of this data and information together to determine whether a constitutional violation has occurred, and if so, what the right approach is to solving it. Those solutions often involve significant substantive reforms to the department we’ve investigated. In the past, our resolutions with police departments have required them to advance a community- and problem-oriented policing strategy, promote bias-free policing, address unlawful use of force, improve community engagement, undertake departmental policy changes and re-training, reform accountability systems, promote officer wellness and support, and address the link between policing and other criminal justice and social systems.

This work is critically important, and we know there is more to be done. This year alone, the department opened pattern or practice investigations of the police departments in Louisville, Minneapolis and Phoenix. That work is ongoing.

Although our pattern-or-practice matters tend to grab the headlines, the department also brings charges in cases where there is evidence that individual law enforcement officers have willfully deprived a person of a right or privilege protected by the Constitution or the laws of the United States. The department obtained indictments of law enforcement officers earlier this year in Minnesota, and also right months ago here in Louisiana. These prosecutions demonstrate that we are committed to ensuring that the rights of all individuals are protected.

The department’s work to protect prisoners’ constitutional rights also is key to restoring public trust, particularly where demands for accountability have gone unmet. Currently, more than two million people reside in our nation’s prisons and jails. People of color are disproportionately represented among them. For example, in Georgia, the percentage of incarcerated people who are Black is nearly twice the percentage of Black residents in the state. This summer, the Justice Department opened a statewide investigation of Georgia state prisons that is examining allegations of harm to prisoners resulting from prisoner-on-prisoner violence, sexual abuse of gay, lesbian and transgender prisoners by prisoners and staff and understaffing.

We also opened an investigation into five juvenile facilities in Texas. There, the department is reviewing whether Texas provides children confined in these facilities with reasonable protection from physical and sexual abuse by staff and other residents, whether there is excessive use of chemical restraints and isolation, and whether Texas provides adequate mental health care to these children.

While the prosecutions and criminal justice work I’ve been talking about are critical to the Civil Rights Division’s mission, it far from all that we do. Our work enforcing federal civil rights laws protecting fair housing, equal employment opportunity, voting rights, the rights of people with disabilities, and more is robust and flourishing. In particular, I am excited to tell you about our new initiative to promote fair lending by combatting the ongoing problem of redlining, which is a major historic and present-day driver of racial wealth disparities.

As you may know, redlining happens when lenders refuse to offer credit services or make loans to individuals in a neighborhood because of the race or national origin of its residents.

But you might be thinking — isn’t redlining something that happened a long time ago? It is true that, typically, a discussion about redlining begins in the 1930s, with the creation of the Federal Housing Administration, and then goes on to talk about the use of residential security maps created by the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation that outlined and shaded Black neighborhoods in red ink. But it’s important to understand that redlining and housing segregation are as old as America itself – and continue to this day.

For centuries, Black, Indigenous and other people of color in America have been denied access to homes, property, and credit through various mechanisms and institutions. Housing segregation — borne from forced displacement, Jim Crow laws, racial covenants, mortgage steering, and a variety of other institutional barriers— limited the housing options for people of color to particular neighborhoods. It is precisely this segregated environment that allowed redlining to develop and take hold.

The federal government institutionalized the practice of redlining through the Federal Housing Administration and the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation. Private lenders also implemented policies and procedures that denied credit to neighborhoods because of their racial demographics. Together, the government and the private sector formalized a system that denied access to credit and limited homeownership opportunities for communities of color. This made it extremely difficult for people of color to accumulate wealth through the purchase, refinance or repair of their homes, resulting in large homeownership disparities by race and national origin.

In response, local and national advocacy groups pushed for legislation to eliminate these disparities and other forms of housing discrimination. Their hard-fought efforts came to fruition in 1968 when Congress passed the Fair Housing Act. This new law created clear legal pathways for challenging discriminatory housing practices, including redlining.

Even after the passage of the Fair Housing Act, though, advocates continued to push for legislation to ensure equal access to credit for all, no matter who someone is or where they may live. This advocacy resulted in the passage of two more critical fair-lending laws in the 1970s: the Equal Credit Opportunity Act and the Community Reinvestment Act.

These three laws were intended to help our country course-correct and move towards a more equitable path by providing equal opportunity for homeownership — a cornerstone of the American dream. Fifty years later, there is no question that our country has made strides towards addressing housing segregation.

However, a problem that was centuries in the making can’t and won’t disappear overnight – or even in 50 years. The current wealth disparities between Black and white families are staggering. Today, the median wealth of a Black family is approximately $24,000. The median wealth of a white family is approximately $188,000.

That means that the wealth of white families in America is about seven and a half times greater than that of Black families.

In addition, a white family is 30% more likely to own a home than a Black family. This means that the homeownership gap between Black and white families is larger today than it was in 1960, before the passage of the Fair Housing Act.

These grim statistics cannot, and will not, deter the Justice Department from action. That is why we launched a new initiative to investigate lenders across the country and analyze whether they are engaging in unlawful redlining.

The Combatting Redlining Initiative represents the department’s most aggressive and coordinated effort yet to address this problem. Through the Initiative, the Civil Rights Division, in partnership with United States Attorneys’ Offices across the country, will seek to address fair lending concerns on a broader geographic scale than the Justice Department has ever done before.

And we have already started. Just a few weeks ago, we reached the first settlement of the Initiative with Trustmark National Bank, which we alleged had redlined predominantly Black and Hispanic neighborhoods in the Memphis, Tennessee metro area from 2014 to 2018. We also recently resolved allegations against Cadence Bank, which we alleged had redlined predominantly Black and Hispanic neighborhoods in the Houston, Texas metro area from 2013 to 2017.

The Combatting Redlining Initiative currently has several more investigations underway, and we expect that the Initiative will yield even more resolutions to tackle the national problem of redlining.

Last, but certainly not least, I want to talk about the department’s work to protect voting rights. Protecting and promoting the right to vote is deeply rooted in the Department’s founding. And it was a major part of my own career. My first Twitter handle was even @_votingrights. I had to change it when I took over at the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights, but voting rights have clearly always been close to my heart.

The department is committed to ensuring that all eligible voters can cast a vote; that all lawful votes are counted; and that every voter has access to accurate information. We will continue to make enforcement of federal voting rights laws a top priority.

In upholding our commitment, we filed a lawsuit contending that several provisions of Georgia Senate Bill 202 were adopted with the purpose of denying or abridging the right to vote on account of race. Our suit alleges that the cumulative and discriminatory effect of these laws—particularly on Black voters — was known to lawmakers and that lawmakers adopted the law in spite of this.

The division also recently issued significant guidance documents, which provide our formal legal interpretation of certain voting rights laws. One provides guidance on federal laws that affect methods of voting, including early voting and voting by mail. Another lays out the protections against racial vote dilution under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act that apply nationwide to the redistricting cycle that is now underway.

The Department of Justice will use all the tools it has available to ensure that each eligible citizen can register, cast a ballot, and have that ballot counted free from racial discrimination. Laws adopted with a racially motivated purpose, like Georgia’s SB 202, simply have no place in democracy today.

Despite these tools, the Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby County v. Holder eliminated preclearance, the single most powerful and effective tool we had to protect the right to vote. It is imperative that Congress Acts and passes the John Lewis Voting Rights Act to address this issue.

The Department of Justice is working every day to uphold the legacy of Justice Ortique and all the other giants who have fought for justice.

We have made significant gains since Justice Ortique lobbied President Lyndon Johnson to nominate Thurgood Marshall to the Supreme Court.

The Biden-Harris Administration promised to appoint the most diverse cabinet in American history, the most diverse set of appointees in American History, and the most diverse set of Judges in American History. And the administration stands by those promises.

But we still have a long way to go.

This could not be clearer than in our justice system. Recent data shows that there is a notable lack of diversity. Among the top 30 law schools, 10% of students are Asian-American, 9% are Hispanic and only 6% are Black. This lack of diversity in law schools impacts the number of lawyers in the private and public sectors.

Only 5% of associates in law firms are Black. And even more discouraging, only 2% of law firm partners are Black. Black and Latina women each represent less than 1% of all partners in US law firms. Furthermore, lawyers with disabilities make up just 0.8% of all lawyers in firms. And only 3.4% of lawyers identify as LGBTQI+.

Diversity is more than just a number, though. Diversity, when done right, can change a system to ensure it represents everyone in this country. Justice Ortique spent his entire life helping to make this dream a reality.

That is why I am so proud of Dillard University’s Center for Racial Justice. This program’s innovative approach to systemic change is precisely what we need to continue the work started by Justice Ortique and so many others. I am so excited to see the fruits of this work and to see how your activism will continue to make this country a better place. Justice Ortique often reminded young attorneys and civil rights activists that “we stand on the shoulders of giants” who have come before us. Remember them, honor them, and continue their work – and someday, you will feel the next generation standing on your shoulders.

Thank you for coming today, it is truly the honor of my career to be able to meet with students like you. I am excited to take a few questions now.

Civil Rights
Updated November 18, 2021