Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez addressed the importance of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division on Thursday at the Howard University School of Law.
“I get asked the following question and with great regularity: why do we need a civil rights division in the year 2011?” Perez said. “When I was asked that question the seventh or eighth time by people of good faith, I recognized that I needed to take a step back and that I needed to make it part of our job not simply to enforce the laws which we do and we do so with pride, and independence and evenhandedness, but we need to explain why we are enforcing laws.”
Speaking to an audience of primarily students, Perez acknowledged past progress in making society more equal. But he said there was a long way to go toward reinvigorating the division that Attorney General Eric Holder once deemed the department’s “crown jewel.”
During the George W. Bush administration, conservative political appointees who were hostile to a traditional focus on protecting minority rights ran the division, driving out more liberal veteran career attorneys. A Government Accountability Office report released numbers that confirmed the mass exodus of the division’s career attorneys from 2001 to 2007 and showed several areas where enforcement of civil rights law declined.
“We are here to ensure that the fundamental infrastructure of democracy remains robust,” Perez said.
The foreclosure crisis had a disproportionate effect on communities of color, according to Perez, resulting in the largest monetary settlement in the division’s history in a fair lending case last year. The $6.1 million settlement involved two subsidiaries of American International Group Inc. that affected 2,500 African-Americans, with each borrower receiving about $2,300.
“The two subsidiaries were gouging African Americans and transforming the American dream into the American nightmare, using the corrosive power of fine print to send people into a downward financial spiral,” he told the audience at the historically black university.
Perez hailed what he called other accomplishments, including an Americans with Disabilities Act settlement in Georgia reinforcing the 1999 Olmstead vs. L.C. Supreme Court decision that made it illegal to segregate in institutions people with disabilities who could receive the same services in a community setting. He also cited what he called progress for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community with the passage of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act in 2009.
The division also now uses disparate impact theory to strengthen its work, a tool the division uses to pursue discrimination cases where there is no intent to discriminate but a difference in results from it, which wasn’t allowed in the Bush administration, according to Perez.
“There are too many people across this nation, people with disabilities; people of color; people who are LGBT,people who are Muslim; people who need our help,” he said. “We will continue to fight that battle for equal opportunity.”