This is Part 5 of The Agenda: What Obama Has Done for You, a series of articles looking at President Barack Obama’s record on issues that affect blacks.
The history of the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division is a long one, and it’s inextricably linked to the suffering of African Americans. Founded in 1957 as part of the Civil Rights Act, the division has now worked for more than five decades to ferret out and prosecute discrimination at all levels of American society. And while the body busies itself with everything from human-trafficking crimes to bias against the disabled, its organizational trademark is its endless pursuit of crimes against people of color.
Just over 50 years after its founding, the Civil Rights Division came under the purview of the country’s first black president and attorney general. And in the ensuing months, it has worked tirelessly to prosecute the ongoing crimes that necessitated its creation so long ago.
The head of the division, Thomas E. Perez, was nominated by President Obama and sworn in as assistant attorney general in October 2009. He spoke with The Root about what the Obama administration is fighting for.
The Root: What has been Obama’s impact on the Civil Rights Division?
Thomas Perez: If we want to transform the lives of communities of color, restoring and transforming the Civil Rights Division can go a remarkably long way in improving opportunity for African Americans. Under the president’s leadership, the Civil Rights Division obtained the largest increase in funding in our division’s history.
He has repeatedly called the restoration and transformation of the Civil Rights Division a top priority, and he put his money where his mouth is. When someone says an issue is a priority, what you should say in response is, “Show me the money.” Budgets are indeed moral documents, and the commitment to the division is a very tangible piece of evidence of the president’s commitment to renewing civil rights enforcement.
TR: In the past 20 months, what have been the Civil Rights Division’s most important victories regarding the African-American community?
TP: Just in the year I’ve been on the job, we’ve established a dedicated Fair Lending Unit to address unscrupulous practices by lenders and to hold accountable those lenders that have targeted minority communities for these toxic products. African-American borrowers were being gouged; they were being charged higher fees because of their race. And in March, we announced the largest lending-discrimination settlement in the division’s history — over $6 million. It was a case involving discrimination against African-American borrowers by two subsidiaries of AIG.
Also, in my first year, we’ve already obtained the largest monetary settlement of a rental-discrimination case under the Fair Housing Act in our division’s history. This was a case in Los Angeles involving discrimination in the rental context against African Americans and Latinos.
We have a robust testing program where we send matched-pairs testers in to monitor whether discrimination is occurring, and we continue to see pervasive discrimination against African Americans. We had a case in Alabama where the white tester was told, “You’ll love this building; we don’t rent to black people.”
TR: What about hate crimes?