Skip to main content

Head of the Civil Rights Division Vanita Gupta Delivers Remarks at University of North Carolina Center for Civil Rights Conference


Chapel Hill, NC
United States

Good morning, everyone, and thank you, Ted [Shaw], for that warm welcome.  I want to thank the University of North Carolina’s Center for Civil Rights for organizing this energizing conference and inviting me to join you today.  It’s humbling to be part of a program with such a distinguished group of civil rights leaders.  I see many dear friends and colleagues in this room.  Through advocacy and academia, through service and leadership – you have devoted your careers to the cause of justice and the fight for equality.                                                                                                                                    

For just over two years, I’ve had the enormous privilege and great honor to lead the Civil Rights Division’s work in that fight.  At times, my tenure has been filled with moments of tragedy and anguish.  And there is no doubt that events in recent years have exposed and exacerbated stark divisions of ideology and open wounds of racial tension across America.  I’ve sat with grieving families who lost their loved ones in officer-involved shootings.  I’ve attended funerals of officers killed in the line of duty.  I’ve seen how the inequities in our criminal justice system can destroy lives and derail futures.  And I’ve been all too aware of how some of the most vulnerable among us encounter a real gap between what the law guarantees, on one hand, and what they experience in their daily lives, on the other – from courtrooms, to voting precincts, to public bathrooms.

Yet I firmly believe that these are also times of possibility, of opportunity and of hope.  Because amidst the tragedies and divisions, I’ve seen police officers and residents working together to promote community-oriented policing strategies.  I’ve seen firsthand these past two years – in meetings, conferences and roundtables around the country – law enforcement leaders stand up and speak out to transform the profession, embracing de-escalation tactics, procedural justice and a smart-on-crime approach.  And I’ve seen how people from different walks of life can come together to engage in America’s imperfect, but unyielding journey of progress towards a more inclusive country and a more just union.

For nearly six decades – from prosecuting the 1964 murder of three civil rights workers in Mississippi; to combating segregation in education; to enforcing the Fair Housing Act; to preventing discrimination in lending, whether in redlining or underwriting; to defending the civil rights of LGBT men and women here in North Carolina – the division’s career lawyers have played a pivotal role in our country’s quest for justice.  The division vigorously enforces civil rights laws to make the promises of equal justice, equal protection and equal opportunity real for all.  We work to restore faith in the legitimacy of our justice system.  And we work to defend the integrity of our democracy.  Because discrimination, inequality and injustice don’t only harm individuals.  They threaten entire communities.  They breed cynicism and despair.  And they erode trust in our public institutions – trust essential to upholding the rule of law, to advancing public safety and to engaging in our centuries-old democratic experiment of effective self-governance.

In stark terms and in real time, we’ve seen this connection between discrimination and distrust play out around the country through the lens of community-police relations.  Sometimes, a particular incident ignites public outrage and unrest.  And let be me clear: when law enforcement officials flout the law, the Civil Rights Division works to prosecute criminal misconduct and hold them accountable.  But I’ll be honest with you, the federal statute that applies is narrow.  In use-of-force cases, federal law requires us to prove both that the officer used “objectively unreasonable” force and that she or he acted willfully – “for the specific purpose of violating the law” – the highest standard of criminal intent in the federal code.  Mistake, misperception, negligence and poor judgment are not prosecutable at the federal level.  That said, during this administration, we have charged more than 580 law enforcement officials for committing willful violations of civil rights and related crimes.

But we know that the true causes – the real reasons – for unrest run far deeper than any individual incident.  And we know that while public attention to these issues might be new, these causes are long-standing and systemic.  We’ve found these causes time and again through several of the 23 civil pattern-or-practice investigations we’ve opened into local police departments during this administration.  These cases focus not on individuals but on systems.  Broken systems – plagued by unlawful practices and tainted by bias – can devastate a community and corrode public trust, letting down not just the victims of police misconduct but the officers who seek to proudly wear the badge.

We saw the impact of broken systems in Baltimore, where a “zero tolerance” street enforcement strategy became a quest to produce numbers – pedestrian stops of African Americans in particular – regardless of their limited impact on solving crime and the damage they did to community relationships.  Officers routinely arrested people for loitering or trespassing if they could not provide a “valid reason” for standing on the sidewalk or near a public housing development.  In one instance, a shift commander emailed a template for describing such trespassing arrests.  The template had blank fields.  Except that it had the words “black male” pre-filled for the suspect description.  Blanket assumptions and stereotypes about certain neighborhoods and certain communities led many residents to see the justice system as illegitimate and authorities as corrupt. 

We saw the impact of broken systems in Ferguson, where the criminalization of poverty – and intentional racial bias in police and court practices – eroded public trust.  The city relied on enforcement strategies “to fill the revenue pipeline” without due consideration for whether officers could better protect the city by focusing on neighborhood policing, rather than debt collection.  We found the city issuing multiple citations with excessive fines and fees for minor violations – $302 for jaywalking, $427 for disturbing the peace and $531 for allowing high grass and weeds to grow on your lawn – and then arresting and even jailing residents when they couldn’t afford to pay.

We saw the impact of broken systems in New Orleans as well, where officers lacked the ability to effectively communicate with immigrant communities.  At the time of our investigation, the New Orleans Police Department relied primarily on just two officers – one fluent in Spanish and one fluent in Vietnamese – to assist on all service calls and investigations involving limited English proficient residents.  As one Spanish-speaking immigrant testified, “[W]e don’t feel safe, we don’t feel supported.  We, the immigrants don’t feel support from them [the police].  We cannot call them for any kind of problem for help.”

And we saw the impact of broken systems in Seattle, where the use of excessive force against individuals in crisis left families dealing with mental illness or addiction with nowhere to turn for help, without access to services and too fearful to call the police when the denial of treatment created dangerous situations for themselves and their loved ones.

While each of these communities struggled with unique problems, the broken systems and police misconduct caused residents to view the police, the courts or even government itself as arbitrary, biased and unfair.  And when residents didn’t trust law enforcement, they became less willing to share information – information critical to solving and preventing crimes.  Entire communities felt that the justice system was not protecting or serving them, perpetuating disillusionment and exacerbating tensions.  Simply put, unconstitutional policing threatens the security and well-being of our communities.  And that hurts us all. 

Of course, broken systems and unconstitutional policing practices don’t operate in isolation from other inequities in our justice system.  Indeed, throughout the justice system – from arraignment to sentencing – when people experience a two-tiered system of justice that stacks the deck against those living in poverty, these broader failures erodes trust, too.  The entire Department of Justice – including our team at the Office for Access to Justice, led by Director Lisa Foster – has helped lead the charge against criminal justice policies that punish poverty.  We’ve sent a dear colleague letter to state and local judges to help end unlawful fine and fee practices that result in inescapable cycles of debt and incarceration.  We’ve shined a light on the right-to-counsel crisis by filing briefs around the country – arguing that if due to underfunding and high workloads, public defenders can’t meaningfully test the prosecution’s case, that violates the Sixth Amendment.  We’ve taken on the criminalization of homelessness, arguing that because every human being must sleep at some time and in some place, arresting and punishing a person for sleeping in public – when there aren’t enough shelter beds in the city and she has nowhere else to go – criminalizes the status of being homeless.  We’ve addressed unlawful bail practices that result in jailing presumptively innocent people solely because of their poverty, without consideration of their ability to pay or alternatives to incarceration, causing people to lose their jobs, their health benefits or their homes without any benefit to public safety.  As with the issue of systemic police misconduct, addressing these issues – by preventing the punishment of poverty and by ensuring access to justice for all – is critical to restoring and maintaining the public’s faith in the legitimacy of our institutions and the integrity of our democracy.

The integrity of our democracy also depends on ensuring that every eligible voter can participate in the electoral process.  Voting forms the bedrock of our democracy.  In our democracy, no matter what policy issue we care about most, we get closer to these goals through the ballot box.  The Justice Department works to ensure that every eligible voter enjoys the full range of voting rights protected by federal law.  It makes no difference to us what candidate a voter selects or what party she supports.  But we fight day-in and day-out, in elections big and small, not just in November but throughout the year, to protect her right to have a say.  Even with the severe setback of the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in Shelby County v. Holder, we’ve continued to use every tool at our disposal, including the Voting Rights Act, to protect voters from discrimination and provide the opportunities federal law guarantees.  And when it comes to protecting the process, we have been winning.

This year, courts around the country issued pivotal rulings to protect the franchise, including in landmark cases brought by the Justice Department and private plaintiffs in North Carolina and Texas.  In July, a federal appeals court ruled that “because of race, the legislature enacted one of the largest restrictions of the franchise in modern North Carolina history,” striking down a law that “target[s] African Americans with almost surgical precision.”  And after years of litigation prolonged by Shelby County, in July the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit struck down a Texas voter ID law for violating the Voting Rights Act.  Roughly half a million Texans lacked the form of ID needed to vote.  As Sammie Louise Bates – an elderly African American woman living on a fixed income of $321 per month, who lacked the birth certificate she needed to get a Texas ID – testified, “I had to put the $42 [I needed to get the birth certificate] where it was doing the most good … because we couldn’t eat the birth certificate … and we couldn’t pay rent with the birth certificate.”  From Alabama to Connecticut, we’ve also reached critical settlements to ensure that eligible voters can register with the ease and access that federal law requires.

In the general election last month, the Justice Department sent more than 500 personnel to 67 jurisdictions in 28 states to monitor polling places in the field.  Of course, no matter how vigorously and effectively we protect this most fundamental right – through enforcement and monitoring, with government action and support from private plaintiffs – eligible voters need to go out and exercise it.  Democracy requires active participation.  Self-government, after all, doesn’t happen by chance.  But I recognize that people need to believe in the legitimacy of government – in the guarantee that government will treat them fairly, with dignity and decency – in order to participate in the process.

Defending the integrity of our democracy also requires protecting all people – no matter who they are, what they look like, whom they love or where they worship – from harm.  Violence against people based on their identity not only violates the law and harms individuals.  It also denies entire communities the promises of equal protection and true freedom.  Following recent heinous acts of terrorism and divisive rhetoric – we’re combating a backlash of religious discrimination targeting Muslim communities and others perceived to be Muslim.  Just two days ago, we convicted a Minneapolis man of a hate crime for writing and mailing a threatening letter to a local Islamic Center, where he threatened to “blow up your building with all you immigrants in it.”  Beyond hate crimes, this discriminatory backlash also includes bullying in schools and unlawful barriers to building houses of worship.

For the past eight years, the Civil Rights Division has also worked tirelessly to make the promise of equal protection real for gay, lesbian and transgender individuals.  Just last month, we celebrated the seventh anniversary of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act.  This law expanded the federal definition of hate crimes to include protections against crimes based on gender, disability, gender identity or sexual orientation.  It marked the first time that the words, “lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender” appeared in the United States Code.  It enhanced the legal toolkit available to prosecutors.  And it increased the ability of federal law enforcement to support our state and local partners.  In the years since, the Civil Rights Division has vigorously enforced this landmark statute.  And we continue to work with our partners on the federal, state and local levels to ensure the robust enforcement of hate crime statutes.

Hate violence may mark the most severe form, but discrimination anywhere – and in any form – offends the Constitution and corrodes the ideals of our democracy.  In United States v. Windsor and Obergefell v. Hodges, the Justice Department argued successfully that our Constitution guarantees the equal protection of the law to all people.  In citing the Supreme Court’s previous decisions – and in recounting America’s painful history of discrimination against gay and lesbian individuals – we explained that bans on same-sex marriage “exclude a long-mistreated class of human beings from a legal and social status of tremendous import” and are “incompatible with the Constitution.”  And then in June 2015, the Supreme Court agreed, ruling that here in America, our Constitution guarantees all people “equal dignity in the eyes of the law.”  The Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell stands as a beacon of light – not only for gay and lesbian individuals but for the cause of justice itself.

The cause of justice is never static.  It is always searching for the next barrier to dismantle, for the next right to vindicate and for the next freedom to secure.  Earlier this year, I joined Attorney General [Loretta] Lynch to announce our lawsuit against North Carolina for violating the civil rights of transgender individuals.  Just like Obergefell was about more than just marriage, our challenge to H.B. 2 was about more than just bathrooms.  Justice [Anthony] Kennedy wrote in Obergefell that gay men and women have a right to “dignity in their own distinct identity.”  And, in 1964, in a case vindicating the Justice Department’s efforts to enforce the Civil Rights Act against the Heart of Atlanta Motel, which refused to let African Americans use its facilities, Justice [Arthur] Goldberg wrote that the “primary purpose” of our nation’s antidiscrimination laws “is the vindication of human dignity.”  Laws like H.B. 2 force transgender people to choose between their dignity and basic participation in public life.  The humiliation, frustration and embarrassment transgender people feel when they are denied access to a facility others of their gender are free to use – when they receive the message that they are less worthy of equal status and dignity than their peers – is the pain of discrimination and always has been.  Fighting discrimination is the mission of the Civil Rights Division, and it always has been. 

In all of the areas I spoke about today, we – as a nation and as a people – have far more work to do.  Whether it’s in North Carolina or in countless other places across America – from rural towns to large states – this fight is centered around the cause of hope.  To me, civil rights work has always been built upon a foundation of hope.  It’s the hope that despite the zigs and the zags of our nation's history, we have been marching forward, imperfectly yet inexorably.  The long struggle for equal justice and equal opportunity in this country has always required a deep and abiding reservoir of hope.  Hope gives us the struggle and the struggle gives us hope.  It’s the hope that this work transforms the nation, fulfills dreams and changes lives.

While we will face new and emerging challenges to equality in the days ahead – just as we always have – civil rights work has always been designed to endure, to build new, infectious momentum in both public and private action.  And when I look at the distinguished leaders in this room, I know that with your determination, your creativity and your compassion, together we will continue to advance America’s march for progress and quest for justice.  Thank you.

Civil Rights
Updated December 2, 2016