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Attorney General Eric Holder Speaks at the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee's 30th Anniversary National Convention


Washington, DC
United States

Thank you, Dr. [Safa] Rifka, for your kind words and for this tremendous honor.  I am grateful to you, and to ADC’s Board and staff members, for this wonderful award.   And I appreciate this opportunity to speak to all of you, at the start of this milestone convention, about the Justice Department's commitment to promoting tolerance, safety, peace, and opportunity.

I especially want to thank Sara Najjar-Wilson, your extraordinary president, for her leadership of ADC – and her partnership with the Department of Justice.  Let me also thank and congratulate the other awardees here this afternoon on their achievements, advocacy efforts, pro bono work, and lifetimes of service, both to Arab-American communities and to the cause of justice.

But, above all, I want to congratulate all of you – on your 30th anniversary, which deserves a round of applause.  For three decades, you have advanced the promise of civil rights for all Americans. You have educated and enlightened citizens of all nationalities, backgrounds and faiths.  And you have promoted the basic principles of dignity that define the best of this country – and bring out the best in our communities.

It’s a special honor to be part of this anniversary and to continue one of our nation’s most important conversations – the crucial, ongoing dialogue between law enforcement and members of the Arab-American community.  Advancing and strengthening this dialogue is a top priority for my Department.  And it’s a top priority for the Obama administration.

I would have been happy to speak to you any day of the year, but I admit that I'm especially pleased to have been scheduled today – June 4th.  Exactly one year ago, in Cairo, Egypt, President Obama addressed the Arab and Muslim world in a landmark speech that, in elegant and heartfelt terms, captured the importance of our discussion today.

“America,” he said, “holds within her the truth that regardless of race, religion, or station in life, all of us share common aspirations – to live in peace and security; to get an education and to work with dignity; to love our families, our communities and our God.”

But, he added, “so long as our relationship is defined by our differences, we will empower those who sow hatred rather than peace, and who promote conflict rather than the cooperation that can help all of our people achieve justice and prosperity.  This cycle of suspicion and discord must end.”

President Obama may have been addressing another region of the world, but his words are as much a guide for America's diverse communities, today, as they were for diverse communities around the globe, last year.  To the extent that relationships between Arab-Americans and non-Arab Americans are defined by differences, those who sow hatred rather than peace will, no doubt, prevail.  But as everyone here knows, we cannot – and we will not – allow that to happen.

Since becoming Attorney General last February, I have heard from Arab-Americans and Muslim Americans who say they feel uneasy about their relationship with the United States government.  I've spoken to Arab-Americans who feel that they have not been afforded the full rights – or, just as important, the full responsibilities – of their citizenship. They tell me that, too often, it feels like “us versus them.”

That is intolerable.  And it is inconsistent with what America is all about.  In this nation, our many faiths, origins and appearances must bind together, not break us apart.  In this nation, the document that sets forth the supreme law of the land – our Constitution – is meant to empower, not exclude. And in this nation, security and liberty are – at their best – partners, not enemies, in ensuring safety and opportunity for all.

The communities we serve must see that the federal government is really committed to the impartial and aggressive enforcement of our nation’s laws.  And these communities must also know that we will do all we can to enforce the laws that protect our civil rights with the same vigor that we enforce the laws that protect our public safety.  These are not, as I’ve often said, mutually exclusive goals. This Justice Department will do both.

Under my leadership, that is the commitment of the Justice Department, and of every U.S. Attorney. It is also my personal pledge to each of you.  But what, exactly, have we done to assure the equal enforcement of our nation's laws?

First, we have restored the department’s Civil Rights Division to its rightful place as the conscience of the nation and our country’s preeminent civil rights law enforcement agency. Assistant Attorney General Tom Perez, who is with us today and who will be speaking to you tomorrow, has made it a priority to transform the Civil Rights Division to tackle the civil rights challenges of the 21st century. Over the last year, the Division has made substantial and meaningful progress towards bringing the promise of equal opportunity to all Americans, and I look forward to building on this work.

But it's not enough to say that the Division will simply be more active.  The real question is: To what end will it dedicate its resources and energy?  So long as I am Attorney General, the answer is simple. We will dedicate our resources and energy to enforcing the law neutrally and fairly and to working to provide all Americans with an equal opportunity to pursue their dreams. That is what civil rights enforcement is all about.

Among the Civil Rights Division’s many goals – ensuring fair housing and lending, disability rights, educational opportunity and more – there is one issue, in particular, that I know is of particular importance to many of you: combating hate crimes.

For this Administration – and for today’s Department of Justice – the prosecution of hate crimes is a top priority. We are employing the new tools afforded to us by the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009 to address and eliminate hate-fueled crimes around the nation. And we are working to train attorneys and law enforcement officers in its aggressive enforcement. Already, we have several investigations open under the new law. And I want you all to know that we are currently working with local law enforcement to investigate the recent pipe bomb attack on a Florida mosque. This case is a top concern for the FBI.

But prosecuting hate crimes isn't all that we’re doing. The department is also committed to ensuring religious freedom, a foundational promise of our democracy. As many of you know, over the last year, we worked to encourage the state of Oregon to repeal a long-standing law, initially passed nearly a hundred years ago to bar catholic nuns from teaching at public schools. The law was reaffirmed as recently as 2009, and effectively forced some Muslim and Sikh women to choose between their careers and their faiths by preventing the wearing of religious garb in the classroom. Following a letter from our Civil Rights Division, the Oregon legislature and governor acted to repeal the law in April.

The bottom line is that the Justice Department’s commitment to civil rights has never been stronger.  I’d like to mention one aspect of that commitment in particular. The Civil Rights Division now holds regular meetings at Main Justice that bring together Muslim, Arab, Sikh and South Asian community leaders with various federal agencies and DOJ leaders. And it has prompted the Department’s engagement in a critical effort, through both prosecution and collaboration with local law enforcement, to end racial profiling in the United States, once and for all.

As many of you know, the Department’s current Guidance Regarding the Use of Race by Federal Law Enforcement Agencies, issued in 2003, has been the subject of some criticism. I’m committed to ensuring that department policy allows us to perform our core law enforcement and national security responsibilities with legitimacy, accountability and transparency. That’s why, last fall, I initiated an internal review to evaluate the 2003 Guidance and to recommend any changes that may be warranted. But, today, I want to be clear about something: Racial profiling is wrong. It can leave a lasting scar on communities and individuals. And it is, quite simply, bad policing—whatever city, whatever state.

Years ago, as a college student, I was driving from New York to Washington when an officer stopped me. He said he wanted to search my car for weapons, and he asked me to open the trunk of the car. I hadn’t done anything wrong. I hadn’t done anything that might have aroused suspicion.  And, though it's been years since that day, I can still remember how humiliated – and how angry – I felt as I opened the trunk of my car.  But my story is not unique. Nor does it represent a worst-case scenario. We’ve all seen heart-wrenching stories of misguided racial profiling, in the past few months alone.

But we must always remember that virtually all of our nation’s law enforcement officers serve their communities honorably – and risk their personal safety – every day.  Their work improves all of our lives.  And the Justice Department will not stand idly by as discrimination by a few unfairly tarnishes the outstanding work being done by so many. Nor will we stand idly by as isolated law enforcement departments engage in discriminatory policing of any kind.  Our nation is better than that.

Third, and finally, in addition to prosecution, we have made an historic commitment to prevention through outreach –by building mutual trust; by keeping lines of communication open; and by meaningfully engaging the communities we serve. In addition to the Civil Rights Division’s efforts, many other Justice Department components have launched promising initiatives.  The FBI often holds conference calls with local community leaders, and each district office employs a Community Outreach Specialist to engage the whole community through town hall meetings, public speaking, youth initiatives and Citizens’ Academies.  Likewise, the FBI’s new Specialized Community Outreach Team, or SCOT, is working to strengthen engagement between the FBI’s field offices and communities of every ethnic background.

Other components of DOJ are also engaged in outreach efforts to the Arab-American community. The Department’s Community Relations Service responds to tension and conflicts related to allegations of disparate and discriminatory treatment faced by Arab, Muslim and Sikh communities across the country.  The Office of Justice Programs has sponsored events that emphasize community engagement.  And U.S. Attorneys across the country are actively engaging Arab and Muslim communities to confront the challenges of the 21st Century together.

This is only a snapshot of our efforts, and we are working constantly to improve them and to build stronger relationships with the communities we serve. Our efforts are currently being reviewed and coordinated by the Arab/Muslim Engagement Advisory Group, which I established last year. I launched the advisory group with the goal of protecting our common security while preserving the values that we all share. The same values and patriotism that guide ADC’s work also inspires countless Arab-Americans. Let us not forget, it was a Muslim-American man who first alerted the New York police to a smoking car in Times Square. And his vigilance likely helped to save lives. He did his part to avert tragedy, just as millions of other Arab-Americans are doing their parts and proudly fulfilling the responsibilities of citizenship.

The contributions of Arab-Americans have helped to build this nation into what it is today. They have served as police officers, teachers, and civic leaders, strengthening their local communities and their country. We must remember this. And we must also, I believe, remember the wisdom of the engraving on a statue that sits next to the Department of Justice, in front of the National Archives. It reads, “What is past is prologue.”

Our past reminds us that we are a nation of immigrants.  Our past reminds us that when we band together across the traditional divisions of identity and background, we can advance sounder policies and promote safer communities.  And our past reminds us that if we are to aspire together, then we must start working together. We have no other choice.

The era of “us versus them” that some of you have experienced must end. At long last, it is ending.  Together, we can make sure it’s replaced by a new era – an era that recognizes the truth reflected in this organization’s name – that regardless of our faiths, regardless of our backgrounds, we are all Americans.

I am grateful to this Committee – and to all of you – for your three decades of work, advocacy, and, above all, partnership in helping to bring us to this point in our history. And I am looking forward to our continued collaboration in pursuit of a more perfect union and a more peaceful existence for all Americans.

Thank you.

Updated March 14, 2016