Justice News

Assistant Attorney General Thomas E. Perez Speaks at the UT Diversity and Civility Conference
Knoxville, TN
United States
Thursday, November 15, 2012

Thank you for inviting me to speak with you today. It is good to be here in Big Orange Country. A special thanks to U.S. Attorney Bill Killian and Vice Chancellor Tim Rogers for hosting this forum, and to all of you for being here.

It is an honor to be here to speak to you all – and more important, to listen and learn about the work you are doing to advance diversity and civility in this community. I have had the great privilege to visit all corners of the country, and I am constantly in awe of the dedication, ingenuity, and sacrifice I see in those who get up every morning and to go work to make this country a better and fairer place. Together, we have made considerable progress over the past four years in expanding opportunity to everyone. And with the continued leadership and support of President Obama and Attorney General Holder, I am confident that we will continue to make great strides to embrace our diversity and to close the opportunity gaps that remain.

At the Civil Rights Division, we see every day that significant opportunity gaps do persist. Too many of our neighbors are still victims of discrimination, bigotry, and violence. Too many are denied opportunities to participate fully in their communities and build valued lives for their families. But at the Division, we are in the opportunity business. And we are committed to working together with all of you to expand access to the promise of American life and the fundamental civil rights protected by our federal laws. Today, I want to share a few examples of the work we are doing to close those gaps and enforce our nation’s civil rights laws.

Opportunity gaps persist in education. My parents taught my siblings and me that education is the great equalizer. Our kids – all of our kids – are guaranteed those basic protections under our nation’s civil rights laws. And the Civil Rights Division makes enforcing those laws a priority. We see that so many students are not only falling behind, they are starting the race behind their peers because they face discrimination at school.

Our work enforcing civil rights laws in the educational context is designed to close the opportunity gap, and to level the playing field for kids, so that all children can receive the quality education to which they are entitled. We are engaged in efforts to dismantle racial segregation in nearly 200 desegregation cases across the country. We have tackled districts where black schools have no gyms or auditoriums, where African American schools have no advanced placement classes, and where a nearly all white elementary school is less than two miles from a nearly all black elementary school – conditions that are the same or worse today than four decades ago. Fifty eight years after Brown v. Board of Education, it is unacceptable for separate black and white schools to linger intact. It is unacceptable for six and seven year olds to experience complete racial isolation . . . a racial isolation that breeds educational inequality, and denies our children the experiences they need to succeed in an increasingly diverse and global economy.

Opportunity gaps in education persist because all too frequently kids do not feel safe in school. A child cannot learn if a child does not feel safe. A child cannot learn if he or she is a victim of bullying. Our docket of bullying cases has expanded dramatically in recent years, and takes many unfortunate ways, shapes and forms. We reached a settlement with the Philadelphia public school system to address pervasive bullying of Asian students in South Philadelphia High School, many of whom were limited English proficient. We reached a settlement with a school district in Anoka Hennepin, Minnesota, where students were subject to severe harassment for not conforming to stereotypes of how boys or girls should act. And we heard of troubling reports of bullying of Latino students in the aftermath of the passage of Alabama’s state immigration law, H.B. 56. Bullying is not a rite of passage; it is wrong; it inhibits learning; and we are using every tool in our arsenal to combat it.

Our education section is doing other important and cutting-edge work. We are challenging the school-to-prison pipeline, filing a lawsuit in Mississippi last month to challenge discipline practices that systematically deprive juveniles of their rights. We found that students were routinely incarcerated for committing minor infractions in school. And we are working to ensure that kids with limited English skills have equal access to equal educational opportunity. Together with our partners at the U.S. Department of Education, we have reached agreements with school districts in Arizona, Massachusetts, and elsewhere to ensure that English language learners have access to the services and supports in school that they are entitled to receive under federal law.

Opportunity gaps persist in our communities as well, including when it comes to the opportunity to live safely, one of our most basic civil rights. Today, in 2012, we continue to see that hate crimes, the result of intolerance and misplaced fear, remain all too prevalent in communities across the country. Take, for example, the Pennsylvania men who, in October, were found guilty of hate crimes charges for the fatal beating of a Mexican immigrant, during which they shouted racial epithets and told him he didn’t belong in their town. Or take the father and son team in South Carolina who, with a friend, pled guilty to chasing an African American man from a convenience store and threatening him with a chainsaw, and then attacking others who tried to help the victim. Here in Tennessee, we saw the arson of the Islamic Center of Columbia by three men – the last two of whom were sentenced last spring. The men spray-painted the mosque with racist symbols and used Molotov cocktails to destroy it.

These crimes not only hurt victims and their families – they tear apart entire communities. They are eerily similar to incidents we read about in our history books. And they have no place on the front pages of our newspapers. We have ramped up efforts to combat hate crimes, convicting 140 defendants on federal hate crimes over the past four years [FY 2009 – 2012]. We are also working hard to implement the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr., Hate Crimes Prevention Act. Passed in 2009, the law was years in the making, championed by the late Senator Ted Kennedy, and allows us to prosecute hate crimes committed because of a person’s sexual orientation, gender identity or disability. The law is remarkable not only because of the new protections it provides, but because it marks the first time that the words, “lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender” appear in the U.S. Code. We recently indicted the first defendants under the new law, and have brought 13 cases against 36 defendants altogether since the law was passed – in Arkansas, Kentucky, Michigan, Minnesota, New Mexico, New York, Ohio, Texas, and Washington.

In the Civil Rights Division, we have also great respect for law enforcement officers around the country, but it is still our responsibility to hold law enforcement accountable when they abuse their power and violate the public trust.

Effective policing and constitutional policing are not in tension. They go hand in hand. Partnering with cities and police departments across the country, we have made great progress on that score. During the past four months alone we have reached agreements with Portland, Seattle, and New Orleans. And the Department currently has more than two dozen open investigations, the largest number at any one time in history, involving larger police departments than ever before.

For example, two years ago New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu invited the Division to conduct a pattern or practice investigation of the NOPD. In his letter to the Division, Mayor Landrieu wrote that “nothing short of a complete transformation [of the New Orleans Police Department] is necessary and essential to ensure safety for the citizens of New Orleans.”

Shortly thereafter, we notified Mayor Landrieu that the Division would begin an independent, comprehensive review of the Department under our pattern or practice enforcement authority. That investigation ultimately led to a comprehensive agreement for reform, reached in July, that will reduce crime, ensure constitutional policing, and enhance public confidence in the New Orleans Police Department. It will serve as a blueprint for reform for departments across the country – and the Division currently has several similar investigations underway.

Expanding opportunity is not simply an issue for our schools and police precincts. It is also essential in the workplace, because regrettably, we see opportunity gaps there as well. The Civil Rights Division regrettably has an active docket of cases involving access to equal employment opportunity. We continue to take on cases where individuals are judged by employers not based on the content of their character or their qualifications, but on the color of their skin, or their gender, or the country where they were born.

Several of these cases address discrimination that has gone on for years. For example, the Division challenged the written test the New York City Fire Department used to hire entry-level firefighters. African-Americans and Latinos have long been severely underrepresented in the New York Fire Department, making up only about 10 percent the department’s 9,000-large firefighter force. We argued that the test the fire department used disproportionately screened out African-American and Latino applicants, and did not enable the city to evaluate which firefighters were actually qualified to perform the jobs. After more than three years of litigation, earlier this year the court ordered the city pay up to $128 million in back pay damages to those who were unfairly rejected from jobs and to provide priority job offers for nearly 200 victims of the city’s discrimination. And just over a month ago, the city finally implemented a new exam that actually tests for the skills and abilities that are important to the firefighter position. Now, for the first time in roughly 40 years, firefighters in New York City will be hired under fair procedures.

And on the credit front, we continue to see that many Americans still lack the opportunity to live in communities they choose. Particularly as our nation recovers from the housing and foreclosure crisis, the Division is working aggressively to ensure that all individuals have equal access to credit, a fundamental building block of the wealth and the American Dream. Two years ago, we created a dedicated fair lending unit two to determine where discrimination occurred in the years leading up to the crisis, and to ensure that such practices do not occur in the future. Since we created that unit, the Division has filed a complaint in or resolved 22 matters, including the three largest fair lending settlements ever reached by the Justice Department. By way of contrast, from 1993 to 2008, the Department filed or resolved 37 lending matters, an average of a little more than 2 cases per year. And the settlements we have reached will have a tremendous impact, providing for a minimum of $500 million in monetary relief for more than 250,000 individual borrowers who were discriminated against in communities across the country.

At the core of the allegations against these lenders – against Countrywide Financial, Wells Fargo, and Suntrust, all of which made major agreements to reform their lending practices this fiscal year – was a simple story. If you were African-American or Hispanic and you went to Countrywide or Wells Fargo for a loan, and you qualified, you likely paid more simply because of the color of your skin. And if you were African-American and Hispanic you were far more likely to be steered into an expensive and risky subprime loan than a similarly-qualified white borrower.

The explosion in subprime lending and the subsequent foreclosure crisis has threatened the stability of communities of color at far greater rates than their white counterparts, and we will continue to work to combat such discrimination.

Another area in which we have seen opportunity gaps is in access to courts. Every day across America, people go to state and local courts to seek access to justice in a variety of crucial areas. State courts deal with disputes that directly touch peoples’ lives – matters involving child custody, protection from domestic violence, housing eviction, unemployment benefits, workers’ compensation, and so many others. Our nation’s civil rights laws, including Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, require that state courts be fully accessible to everyone, no matter their national origin or language ability, so that all individuals can have access to this important resource.

However, we have found that for far too many people across this country, it is impossible to access justice if you don’t speak English. To give you just a few examples from an investigation we recently concluded in a state:

·          An impoverished defendant in a criminal matter remained in jail for several weeks when a trial was postponed when a Spanish-speaking interpreter could not be found.

·          In a number of criminal cases in this state, state court judges relied on prosecutors to act as interpreters for defendants who did not speak English, which raises serious conflict of interest concerns.

·          And in another matter, the judge used the complainant’s husband – who was the adverse party – to interpret the complainant’s testimony for the court and to translate her written evidence into English for the court’s review.

These practices have serious and detrimental consequences for people with limited English language ability, limiting their access to state court justice system. That’s why the Division developed a “Courts Initiative” to seek to expand access to state courts. Through that initiative the Division has made agreements with state and county court systems from Colorado to Maine to ensure that free interpreter services and other language access tools are available to everyone.

These agreements will have a real and immediate impact. They could make the critical difference in court proceedings that decide whether people get paid, keep their homes, or receive custody of their child. The Division has also issued important guidance to every State Supreme Court Chief Justice and State Court Administrator reminding them of their obligations to provide this access, and laying out ways for state courts to do so.

Yesterday I met with several Tennessee Supreme Court Justices regarding the changes they have recently made to improve access to language services in Tennessee state courts. In June, the Tennessee Supreme Court modified the state’s court interpreter rule in order to pay for interpreters for all court proceedings before a judge or judicial magistrate in all cases where the court finds that an interpreter is needed. I applaud the Court for their commitment to expanding access to justice in Tennessee.

Finally, let me say a few words about the Division’s work to enforce laws that are intended ensure access to the paramount expression of our democracy – the right of every American citizen to have an equal right to vote.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said that “there is no duty which weighs more heavily on us than the duty we have to ensure that right.” It is an unfortunate reality that discrimination in voting persists nearly fifty years after Dr. King spoke those words. But the Division’s commitment to enforcing the Voting Rights Act of 1965 has never been stronger, and our Voting Section is as busy as it has ever been. We handled more new cases in the last fiscal year than in any other year for which we have records, going back to 1977. In fact, the number of new matters in the 2012 fiscal year that just ended – 43 – is nearly twice the number that we handled in the next-highest year, which happened to be 2011 – also a record-breaking year.

Our goal in these cases is to ensure access to democratic participation for all legally qualified voters, and to ensure equal opportunity to participate in the democratic process free from discrimination. And we are pursuing those goals of ensuring access and guaranteeing non-discrimination through a comprehensive effort to enforce, among other statutes, Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.

Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act is one of the most important tools we have to combat discrimination in voting. Section 5 was originally put in place because of the well documented history of government-sponsored discrimination in voting in specific parts of the country. Jurisdictions that are now covered by Section 5 are required to obtain permission – or “preclearance” – for every change they make to their voting procedures and practices, and to demonstrate both that the change has no discriminatory purpose and that it has no discriminatory or retrogressive effect.

Our enforcement of Section 5 is vigorous, evenhanded, and fair, and it is critical to ensuring access to and guaranteeing non-discrimination in voting for communities across the country.

Since last October, the Department has objected to 16 different voting changes around the country on the ground that those changes were discriminatory. [Note: the 16 objections includes both administrative objections and ones in litigation] These are changes that we concluded either had a discriminatory effect, or were adopted with an intentionally discriminatory purpose – and that would have automatically gone into effect if Section 5 hadn’t suspended their implementation pending review by the Justice Department or a court.

In Texas, for example, where the state asked a federal court to review its statewide redistricting plans, we opposed the state legislature’s maps for both the State House and the Texas delegation to the United States Congress.

In August, a federal district court agreed, ruling that Texas’ redistricting plans do not merit preclearance. The court also found evidence of discriminatory intent behind two of the redistricting plans, writing in a footnote, “The parties have provided more evidence of discriminatory intent than we have space, or need, to address here.”

As you might imagine, the last few weeks have been particularly busy for our Voting Section. Since the passage of the Voting Rights Act, the Division has regularly sent observers and monitors around the county to protect the rights of voters. For the general election last Tuesday, we deployed more than 780 federal observers and Justice Department personnel to 51 jurisdictions in 23 states. We also staffed an election hotline and received numerous complaints related to possible violations of federal voting rights laws by phone, fax, email, and an online voter-complaint form. This monitoring effort not only protected voters and deterred discriminatory voting practices on Election Day, it also serves as an important investigative tool for future enforcement actions where necessary.

We will continue this work, and our other voting rights enforcement efforts, because enforcing the nation’s voting rights laws implicates the essence of our democracy. The stakes are high, and we will do everything in our power to ensure that every single eligible voter can cast his or her ballot.

I’ve given you a thumbnail sketch of some of the Civil Rights Division’s work here today. But this work is vital to ensuring that all people can participate fully and equally in society. It is critical to providing equal opportunity and equal justice to everyone.

It is a privilege to serve as Assistant Attorney General of Civil Rights, and to be here with all of you to discuss our work. The Attorney General has often referred to the Division as a conscience of the federal government, and a crown jewel of the Department. In reality, the laws we enforce are the crown jewels. When I reflect on the sacrifice of Dr. King, Congressman Lewis, and so many others, I am motivated each and every day to ensure that these crown jewels never gather dust. I am also acutely aware of history. America’s greatest strength has long been our diversity. For generations, people of good will spanning an ideological divide have said we should embrace our diversity and celebrate our difference. Today, we see more than ever before how essential our diversity is to our global competitiveness as a nation, and to building strong, vibrant communities where everyone who works hard has the opportunity to prosper.

We still have far to travel to meet that goal, and new challenges continue to emerge. As my old boss Senator Edward Kennedy often said, civil rights is the unfinished business of America. But looking around the room today – at those of you who are have committed so much to this effort, and those of you who are considering careers in public service in order to join this fight in the future – gives me great cause for optimism. I know there are a number of law students in the room today, and I encourage you to take an example from the fantastic lawyers and activists around you and consider a career in public service. I have been fortunate in my career to witness firsthand how the law can be used to make the promise of this nation a reality for individuals and for entire communities. And I look forward to continuing to work with all of you to make this country, and Big Orange Country, a better and fairer place.

Thank you for inviting me to be here with you today.

Updated September 17, 2014