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?
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.
There are two high schools in that district — one is 100 percent African American, and one is 57 percent African American and 43 percent white. In the integrated school, there were about 70 AP or gifted-and-talented courses in the curriculum. In the all-African American school, there were five such offerings. That is separate, and that is unequal.
We brought up a desegregation order from 1970 and used that order as a basis to change the system and provide opportunity for equal access to education in the Monroe school system. We've certainly made a lot of progress as a nation in the quest toward equal opportunity and equal justice under law, but we still see there's a lot of unfinished business in the civil rights context. That's why I'm so appreciative of this job, but I'm also appreciative of the president and the attorney general's unwavering commitment to the restoration and transformation of the Civil Rights Division.
TR: Has some of the reinvigoration in the Civil Rights Division been U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder's doing?
TP: He's absolutely indispensable. Leadership matters, and leaders have priorities. From the first day the attorney general came here, he called the Civil Rights Division the crown jewel of the Department of Justice. And he called the transformation of the division a legacy issue for him. He's been personally involved in many of the cases I just described.
The New Orleans case, for instance: I wasn't [at the DOJ yet,] but for a few days before, I had a conversation with [Attorney General Holder] about the New Orleans Police Department. And he has made it a personal mission to ensure that we are there for as long as it takes in New Orleans to transform that department.
This is far more than just an academic issue for the attorney general and the president. It's a personal passion for both, and it's reflected in their budgeting decisions. It's reflected in the amount of personal time they take on these matters, and it's really helped build morale. Because when you know the boss has such passion, that passion becomes really infectious, in a good way.
Cord Jefferson is a staff writer at The Root. Follow him on Twitter.