How Obama’s Civil Rights Policies Are Benefiting Blacks

As part of The Root's series about how President Obama's policies affect African Americans, we look at the work being done by the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice.

TP: Our criminal docket, with cases involving hate crimes and police misconduct, has gone through the roof. We have prosecuted more criminal cases in the past fiscal year than in any year in the division’s history. These cases involve really horrific hate crimes.

A person in Springfield, Mass., for example, pleaded guilty to burning down an African-American church on election night in retaliation for the election of an African-American president. And just a few months ago, we had a father-and-son pair of racists in South Carolina who attacked an African American who was trying to use the restroom at a gas station. They assaulted him with their hands, went and grabbed their chainsaw, and then assaulted him with that, too.

This is America in the years 2009 and 2010. There are those who argue that we’ve reached post-racial America and there’s no more need for a Civil Rights Division, and I wish they were right — I wish our phone never rang. … Regrettably, [it] is ringing off the hook. It’s ringing off the hook in a hate-crimes context. And it’s not only African Americans who are being targeted. It’s people who are LGBT; it’s people who are Latino; it’s people who are Muslim. Both the data and our own enforcement have shown a dramatic spike in that activity.

TR: I’ve read that the Justice Department is working heavily in New Orleans. What are you doing there?

TP: We’re working very closely with the New Orleans Police Department to diagnose the wide array of problems that have created a crisis of confidence in the New Orleans community. We have a number of criminal indictments that have been issued, and we have a wide-ranging systematic investigation of a pattern or practice of unconstitutional policing and other violations. I’m absolutely confident, however, that we can identify the problems and, working together with the department and the community, implement a blueprint for sustainable reform.

We have had an army of lawyers and experts in New Orleans for the past seven or eight months on literally a weekly basis. They’re in New Orleans trying to work together with community leaders and other stakeholders to reform the police department. I really believe — and I know the president has said this — that part of the rebuilding in the post-Katrina world is not simply rebuilding the bricks and mortar but rebuilding the infrastructure of democracy. And a key part of the infrastructure of democracy is effective policing. So that has been a very significant focus of our activity in New Orleans.

TR: Does the DOJ work in education at all?

TP: We still see, much to my disappointment, a host of cases where African-American kids are stuck in educational settings that are separate and unequal. One example [is] a case that we settled just recently in Monroe, La., in a school district that is 87 percent African American.