In case you missed it, the month of September marks the 60th anniversary of the Civil Rights Division (CRD) of the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ). The CRD, which opened for business in 1957, has a noble mission and rich history which has helped to effectuate equal opportunity for all Americans -- especially African Americans and other minority groups.
“On September 9, 1957, President Eisenhower signed the Civil Rights Act of 1957, creating the Civil Rights Division,” according to DOJ. “The 1957 Act was the first civil rights law passed since Reconstruction, and was a first step leading to the passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act the following year, and numerous other civil rights laws enacted in the years since that are enforced by the Civil Rights Division.”
Since its creation six decades ago, the CRD has been at the forefront of addressing and remedying discrimination by implementing the critically important judicial principle of equal justice under law from the workplace to virtually every public place.
The DOJ reminds us, for example, that, “Division attorneys prosecuted the defendants accused of murdering three civil rights workers in Mississippi in 1964, and were involved in the investigations of the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Medgar Evers.”
During its first decade, the CRD vigorously safeguarded the right to vote for all black citizens under the groundbreaking Voter Rights Act of 1965.
Bigots who tried to ban or discourage African Americans from polling places, or otherwise deny them the right to vote, were met with swift prosecution by CRD. But that’s not all.
In addition to protecting the voting rights of minorities, today’s CRD is responsible for enforcing federal laws against:
- Hate crimes affecting African Americans, Jewish Americans, Muslim Americans, the LGBT community and other targeted groups. Today, we have observed a disturbing wave of racism, Islamophobia and anti-Semitism, coupled with a resurgence of white supremacist hate groups seeking to divide America. The CRD recently announced an investigation into the ugly racial incidents that occurred in Charlottesville, Virginia, which resulted in one innocent demonstrator being killed and many more others injured.
- Human trafficking, including sex trafficking of young girls and so-called “slave labor” working conditions. This is another major problem that appears to be worsening, as bad actors continue to prey upon and exploit the most vulnerable among us. “Victims of child trafficking can be used and abused over and over,” according to the advocacy group Arc of Hope for Children. “A $32 billion-a-year industry, human trafficking is on the rise and is in all 50 states and 4.5 Million of trafficked persons are sexually exploited. Up to 300,000 Americans under 18 are lured into the commercial sex trade every year.”
- Unreasonable or excessive use of force by police officers, prison guards and other law enforcement officials. We have all seen recent racial incidents between police and minority communities that have erupted into violence and mass rioting, from Ferguson to Baltimore and numerous other cities nationwide. This stark racial division between white police officers and minority communities requires healing and unity – for which the CRD can play a critically important role.
- Discrimination, harassment and retaliation against employees and students based on race, color, gender, religion, national origin and other factors. Unfortunately, discrimination remains a persistent problem from the workplace to college campuses across the country. Today, in addition to the blatant bias and bigotry that has always existed, we also see more implicit forms of discrimination which have been labeled as “unconscious” or “unintentional” – but there’s nothing unconscious or unintentional to those who are victimized, regardless of whether the discriminatory acts are perceived as overt or subtle, visible or hidden.
- Discrimination against people with disabilities in housing and public accommodations who are unlawfully denied equal access and services. The U.S. Census Bureau says that 20% of all Americans have a disability impairment or will experience one during their lifetime – physical, mental or both. That’s over 60 million people who don’t deserve to be treated as second class citizens. In essence, even one case of unlawful discrimination is one too many. As the late, great Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “The time is always right to do what’s right.”
- Violations of humane treatment for those who are institutionalized. Americans who are elderly and/or suffer from mental illness are still targeted for discrimination and victimization because they are perceived to be among the most vulnerable groups. The fight to end the stigma against those with mental illness is still being fought in the 21st century – in addition to eliminating myths, fears and stereotypes based on age and disability. Every American deserves to be treated by society in a humane and respectful manner, regardless of age, disability or anything else.
- Discrimination based on religion in places of worship and other violations against specific religious communities. We must always remember that America is the land of religious freedom in which every group is protected by law for expressing their sincerely held religious beliefs and views, despite the objections of others. The burning down of black churches, spray painting of synagogues with anti-Semitic slurs, or breaking windows or otherwise desecrating mosque are all reprehensible acts and should never be tolerated. The perpetrators of such egregious crimes must face the full weight of the justice system.
Nomination of New Civil Rights Chief
John M. Gore is the Acting Assistant Attorney General who currently oversees the CRD until the Senate confirms a permanent replacement. Mr. Gore recently reflected on the 60-year anniversary of the division:
“Since its founding, the Civil Rights Division’s efforts have helped transform the social landscape of our country and touched the lives of millions of Americans." He adds:
"Today, the Division remains at the center of the effort to achieve equal justice and opportunity for all and to protect the most vulnerable members of our society.”
Gore also stressed, “This work is far from finished. We will continue to work tirelessly towards a country that fulfills its promise of equal justice, equal opportunity, and human dignity for every single American.”
The current nominee to lead the DOJ/CRD is Eric S. Dreiband, who last week testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee at a public confirmation hearing.
I worked closely with Mr. Dreiband during 2003-2005 when he served as General Counsel of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and I was a national media spokesman for the agency (career civil servant). Therefore, having observed him up close and personal, I can say without reservation that Dreiband is well qualified for the job and should be swiftly confirmed by the Senate.
As I told the New York Times and other media covering his confirmation hearing:
Dreiband puts the rule of law above the Washington rule of partisan political bickering.
He puts the interests of average Americans above political interests. This an admirable trait for any government official and one which, unfortunately, remains rare in Washington.
In short, Eric Dreiband is strongly committed to guaranteeing equal justice under law for all Americans, as enshrined in the U.S. Constitution. However, as I noted in a recent op-ed, his strong litigation record at the EEOC on behalf of women and minorities, something his political detractors have intentionally obscured.
In fact, under Dreiband’s leadership as General Counsel, the EEOC filed more lawsuits, resolved more lawsuits, and obtained more money for victims of discrimination than at any other comparable period in modern times -- and perhaps in EEOC history (based on a comprehensive analysis of annual litigation data publicly available on the EEOC’s website).
Despite tough questions by committee members during his confirmation hearing, Dreiband rose to the occasion with passion and conviction. He spoke from the heart by providing unequivocal statements on the most serious issues of the day.
For example, when senators questioned him about the recent racial unrest in Charlottesville, Dreiband said forcefully, “The events in Charlottesville were a terrible tragedy and a disgrace. I was totally disgusted by what we saw.”
He continued, “As Americans, we should never tolerate hatred and violence. There is no place in this country for neo-Nazisim, white supremacy, the KKK, the ideology of hatred, bigotry, discrimination, murder and other crimes based on those ideologies.”
Dreiband emphasized to the committee that, “Anyone who perpetrates crimes or any other civil rights violations that come within the jurisdiction of the civil rights division should know — they should be on notice — if I’m confirmed, the civil rights division is coming for them!”
That’s exactly the type of proactive and aggressive approach DOJ/CRD needs today to preserve its proud legacy of strong civil rights law enforcement for all Americans.
David B. Grinberg is a Washington, DC-based strategic communications consultant, former long-time federal government spokesman, and former featured blogger for GovLoop. His 25 years of public service includes the White House, Congress, OMB and EEOC. You can follow David on LinkedIn, Twitter, Medium and award-winning startup beBee Affinity Social Network (where he's a global brand ambassador).