Good morning! I am delighted and honored to address you today. The National Urban League has a storied history in civil rights. You have been fighting on behalf of Black people and other communities of color for 113 years. You stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Martin Luther King at the March on Washington in August 1963. Your former Director Whitney Young created the Domestic Marshall Plan, which significantly influenced Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs. Your list of accomplishments is long, but what is truly remarkable is that your vitality, your ingenuity and your commitment have not waned. Through 92 local affiliates, you continue to pursue an “empowerment agenda,” working with unremitting passion to improve the lives of Black people.
So, my first mission is to say thank you. Thank you for 11 decades of work on economic empowerment and social justice. Thank you for your advocacy and your commitment to closing the economic gap between Black and white Americans.
Unfortunately, that gap has proved remarkably durable. The Urban League’s semi-annual Equality Index compares how well Black and white people are doing as regards their economic status, health, education, social justice and civic engagement. Overall, the index for Black people in 2022 was 73.9%. Economically, Black people were 62.1% as well off as whites in 2022. Racial gaps continue to pervade almost every aspect of American life – health, employment, income, property ownership, life expectancy, environmental exposure and incarceration.
That’s why the Supreme Court’s holding in Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard is a deep disappointment. The Court dismissed the universities’ assessment of the educational benefits – or even the relevance – of racial diversity. As Justice Jackson’s dissent powerfully recognized:
Our country has never been colorblind. Given the lengthy history of state-sponsored race-based preferences in America, to say that anyone is now victimized if a college considers whether that legacy of discrimination has unequally advantaged its applicants fails to acknowledge the well-documented ‘intergenerational transmission of inequality’ that still plagues our citizenry.
The Court has made it more difficult to remedy racial disparities. But you and I – we are part of the Civil Rights Movement. We are used to difficult times. And difficult or not, the Civil Rights Division at the United States Department of Justice will continue to work to expand opportunity and achieve diversity on college campuses and in society.
I want you to know that we were prepared for this decision. The day the Court ruled, the White House called on us, along with the Department of Education, to distribute a resource document in 45 days. We are actively working on this resource for colleges and universities, students and other key stakeholders now. That document will be made available next month.
Despite the Court’s decision, there is much that colleges and universities can do. They can and should ensure that their admissions policies identify and reward the attributes they most value – hard work, achievement, potential and determination. The Supreme Court recognized that race can be relevant in this regard. The Court expressly stated that “nothing in [its] opinion should be construed as prohibiting universities from considering an applicant’s discussion of how race affected [their] life, be it through discrimination, inspiration, or otherwise.”
In addition, colleges and universities can intensify efforts to recruit and retain talented students from underserved communities, including those with large numbers of students of color. Schools can bolster need-based financial support and partner with school districts in underserved areas to nurture students’ potential and prepare them to get into and thrive at colleges and universities.
As the Urban League has recognized, though, any effort to remedy the opportunity deficit in this country must deal with a resurgence of racial animus. FBI statistics show a nationwide increase in hate crimes of more than 11% from 2020 to 2021. White supremacy and racially motivated hate crimes remain a threat to our democracy. Hate crimes targeting people based on their race and ethnicity, religion or sexual orientation and gender identity all increased, and remain far too common.
The Justice Department’s response to this rise in hate has been robust and resolute. Since January 2021, we have charged more than 90 defendants with bias-motivated crimes in more than 80 cases. That includes charges against the man who killed 10 Black people at a Tops grocery store in Buffalo, New York, based on his view that Black people are trying to replace whites in this country. It includes the man who gunned down 23 people and wounded 22 more at the Cielo Vista Walmart in El Paso, Texas – victims targeted for no reason other than their Hispanic identity and their national origin. That man was sentenced to 90 consecutive life terms just 2 weeks ago. And it includes the defendant recently found guilty for the Tree of Life massacre in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where 11 Jewish people were murdered as they peacefully worshipped. The sentencing phase of that case is underway as we speak.
In March, a Mississippi man was sentenced to 42 months in prison for burning a cross in his front yard, with the intent to intimidate a neighboring Black family. And right here in Texas, a man received a 25-year sentence for a knife attack on an Asian family, targeted because he believed they were Chinese and responsible for COVID-19. In all, since January 2021, we have convicted more than 70 defendants for hate crimes, and that includes three white men in Georgia who killed Ahmaud Arbery just because he was Black.
115 miles from here, James Byrd, a Black man was dragged to his death in Jasper, Texas – 25 years ago – targeted by white supremacists because of his race. Let’s never forget his name. It is the federal law that bears his name – the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Hate Crimes Prevention Act – that we use, every day, to hold perpetrators of hate crime accountable, work that we will carry out in every corner of this country.
For hate crime victims, and frankly all crime victims, there needs to be community trust of law enforcement to ensure those crimes are reported. But police misconduct erodes that trust and undermines public safety. One of our key priorities is to hold law enforcement officers accountable when they violate civil and constitutional rights. This work is driven by one core principle – all Americans deserve constitutional, fair and non-discriminatory policing. To that end, we secured federal convictions against Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis officer who killed George Floyd, and the three other officers who failed to intervene to stop the killing and failed to render medical aid. Last July, all four officers were sentenced, with Chauvin receiving more than 20 years in prison.
We all remember the tragic death of Breonna Taylor three years ago. Louisville police officers drafted what they knew was a false affidavit to support a search warrant for Ms. Taylor’s home. When officers executed the warrant, they broke down the door to her apartment. Last summer, the Justice Department charged the officers who falsified the warrant and another who recklessly discharged his firearm during execution of the warrant. One of those officers has already pleaded guilty.
We are also investigating police departments that engage in systemic misconduct. I am pleased to share that just yesterday, we announced the opening of an investigation into whether the Memphis police engages in a “pattern or practice” of conduct that violates the Constitution and federal laws. We are looking at the department’s use of excessive force; stops, searches and arrests; and whether the department engages in discriminatory policing with respect to Black people in this city.
Last month, we completed our investigation into the Minneapolis Police Department where we found that the department engaged in such a “pattern or practice” of misconduct. We found that the department used excessive force, both deadly and less lethal. In reviewing 19 police shootings and 1 in-custody death from 2016-22, we found that officers used deadly force without probable cause to believe there was a serious threat of harm to the officer or another person. We also found, based on review of 187,000 traffic and pedestrian stops, that the department unlawfully discriminated against Black and Native American people in its enforcement activities. We found that the department retaliated against protestors and journalists exercising their First Amendment rights. And we found that the police department and city discriminated against people with behavioral health disabilities when responding to calls for assistance. We are working with the city now to negotiate a consent decree that will include the reforms needed to ensure constitutional policing going forward.
We announced similar findings in March for Louisville, Kentucky and we have ongoing investigations in Phoenix, Louisiana, New York City and other parts of the country.
George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tyre Nichols should all be alive today.
I know that the Urban League cares deeply about economic justice.
That’s why we are taking on banks and financial institutions that engage in modern-day redlining and holding them accountable when they fail to provide equal access to credit to Black people and other people of color. Our anti-redlining initiative, launched just under two years ago, has secured over $88 million in relief. In January, we obtained our largest redlining settlement ever involving City National Bank in Los Angeles, providing more than $31 million to affected people and communities. We have secured similar settlements here in Houston, in Columbus, Philadelphia, Memphis and more. We will keep fighting. Redlining has inflicted serious, long-term economic harm on the Black community, stripping away opportunities for generational wealth. We are determined to stop it.
We also know that democratic rights are under attack. Earlier this month, we took action to challenge a new Mississippi law mandating appointment of special judges and prosecutors by Mississippi state officials in majority-Black Hinds County, which includes the City of Jackson. Our complaint alleges that Mississippi violated the U.S. Constitution by creating a new, two-tiered system of justice – which displaces Black elected local officials and creates a new system led by judges and prosecutors hand-picked and appointed by state officials. This thinly-veiled state takeover is intended to strip power, voice and resources away from Jackson and Hinds County’s predominantly-Black electorate. Our complaint alleges that these provisions are unconstitutional and discriminatory.
These are just some of the issues we are tackling in the Civil Rights Division. We’re also fighting for environmental justice in places like Lowndes County, Alabama where generations of Black people have been denied the right to basic sanitation and have been exposed to raw sewage. We’re addressing the unconstitutional conditions inside our jails and prisons, safeguarding voting rights and filing disability rights cases to protect our most vulnerable community members.
You know the magnitude of the challenges that lie ahead, the obstacles we will face, the threadbare excuses for inequality and discrimination that we will hear. I’m confident that none of these hurdles will divert you from the quest for justice and equity. I promise that they will not deter us. Too many heroes have sacrificed, too many fought, suffered and died to advance civil rights for us to slacken in our efforts. We will not devalue their sacrifices. We will redeem them with our dedication and courage. Arm in arm with you, we will stand against discrimination and seek equal justice for all.