Remarks as Prepared for Delivery
Good afternoon, and thank you Dean Robinson for that warm introduction. It is an honor to be at George Washington University, and I am grateful for the opportunity to join this exciting convening by the Equity Institute Initiative. Before I begin, I would like to take a moment to recognize the distinguished scholars and thought-leaders who have joined us today – thank you for being here and all you have done and are doing to support the body of scholarship on racial and socioeconomic inequality.
Your work could not be more timely. As a nation, we are confronting converging economic, health, and climate challenges that have exposed and exacerbated inequities, while a historic movement for racial justice highlighted issues that have long been problems. To meet this moment, the Biden Administration has put justice and equity at the forefront of its policy agenda. On the day he took office, President Biden signed the Executive Order on Advancing Racial Equity and Supporting Underserved Communities through the Federal Government. And, on the law enforcement side, the Justice Department has taken a whole-of-Department approach to equity. This is familiar territory for the Justice Department. As Attorney General Merrick B. Garland frequently reminds the public, advancing equal justice under law is a core principle of the Department of Justice, and enforcing civil rights was central to the department’s founding charter. Established during Reconstruction, in the aftermath of the Civil War, the department’s first mission was to secure the civil rights promised by the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments, coordinating efforts to prosecute white supremacists like the Ku Klux Klan that were terrorizing Black communities throughout the south. Since then, the department has continued its foundational work of ensuring that no individuals are denied the freedoms and protections guaranteed by the Constitution. It was the Civil Rights Act of 1957 – the first federal civil rights bill passed since Reconstruction – that ordered the establishment of the Civil Rights Division and allowed for federal enforcement of civil rights laws. The Civil Rights Division will mark the 65th anniversary of its founding later this year – which makes us young by comparison to the George Washington Law School.
GW Law School was established the same year that the Civil War ended, becoming the first law school in the District of Columbia. Inspired by George Washington’s vision of an education grounded in “principles friendly to republican government and to the true and genuine liberties of mankind,” GW Law School began to educate generations of future leaders. It seems fitting that now, at the Equity Institute Initiative’s inaugural racial and socioeconomic equity research showcase, we are continuing to explore how to ensure that those liberties are extended to all.
Now, I’m not going to pretend that this is an easy time to be doing this work. As scholars in this field, you are well aware that we have seen challenging times before. While there is much that remains to be done, I’d like to highlight some of the Civil Rights Division’s recent efforts to use our nation’s federal civil rights laws to advance equity. These laws help us confront hate crimes, promote police accountability, fight to ensure that all Americans have the right to vote, pursue environmental justice and confront modern day redlining. Notwithstanding the challenges, enforcement of our federal civil rights laws provides hope and possibility that we can move our nation forward when it comes to advancing racial equity.
I will start with hate crimes – because there cannot be equity without freedom from violence. FBI statistics show that, in 2020, reported hate crimes rose to their highest levels in nearly two decades. We have seen acts of hate-driven violence unfold in places that should be safe for all of our families – in our stores, in our schools, in our places of worship and on the streets of the places that we call home.
Attacks on people because of their race, national origin, religion, gender, or sexual orientation are unacceptable. They are a direct threat to equality, and they have no place in our society. During the pandemic, there was a rise in hate crimes committed against Black Americans, who were already the group most often targeted.
We need look no further than the recent tragic mass killing of 10 Black people in Buffalo, New York, to understand why the division’s work to combat hate crimes and hate incidents is a top priority for the entire department. We carry out this work with a recognition that white supremacist violence is real and a threat to democracy. We will use every tool in our arsenal to stand up to this threat and to ensure the safety of all communities in our country.
In July, a federal grand jury returned a 27-count indictment against the defendant in Buffalo. The indictment charges the shooter with violations of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act and other federal charges for willfully causing the death of the victims because of their actual and perceived race and color. We are committed to seeking justice for the victims and the entire Buffalo community.
The division has also been hard at work prosecuting other critical cases, including securing guilty verdicts on federal hate crimes charges brought against the three men who killed Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia. The evidence at trial revealed that the defendants had strongly held racist beliefs that led them to make assumptions and decisions about Mr. Arbery because he was a Black man. At trial, the evidence showed that one defendant had referred to his daughter’s Black boyfriend as a “monkey” and used the “n-word;” that a second had made deeply racist comments, including that he wished that Julian Bond, a former NAACP leader, “had been put in the ground years ago;” and that the third had expressed on social media and in text messages that he associated Black people with criminality and wanted to see them killed or harmed.
We have also seen a shocking rise of over 70% in hate crimes targeting people of Asian descent – the highest in over a decade. For example, in February, a Texas man pleaded guilty to hate crimes charges for attacking an Asian family at a store in Midland, Texas. The defendant saw the family, followed them, and violently attacked the father and his two young children with a knife. The defendant admitted he targeted the family because he believed they were Chinese and deemed them responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic.
But prosecutions alone will not stop the spread of hate. That is why the Justice Department is also hard at work addressing non-criminal acts of bias that rear their ugly head inside our classrooms, workplaces and neighborhoods. To give one example, the Civil Rights Division secured a settlement with a school district in Utah that had failed for years to address serious and widespread racial harassment of Black and Asian American students. Our investigation uncovered numerous reports of harassment, including hundreds of documented uses of the “n-word,” and physical assaults. All students deserve safe learning environments, and we will continue striving to make that a reality.
We are also addressing the need for hate crime prevention through education and awareness. This multi-part strategy is critical to eliminating hate, root and branch. The Civil Rights Division, in coordination with U.S. Attorneys’ offices around the country, is leveraging partnerships with community groups to prevent hate crimes and improve hate crimes reporting. The department is spearheading a new outreach training program called United Against Hate, which teaches community members how to identify, report, and help prevent hate crimes and provides an opportunity for trust building between law enforcement and communities. Just last week, at the White House United We Stand Summit aimed at combating hate-fueled violence, Attorney General Garland announced the expansion of the United Against Hate program to every federal prosecutor’s office — because this moment requires an all-hands-on-deck strategy to fully confront unlawful acts of hate.
Indeed, in order to fulfill our promise to prevent hate crimes and deliver swift justice to the perpetrators who commit them, we must have law enforcement agencies that communities can trust. That is why I want to now turn to our work to address law enforcement accountability. Achieving equity requires ensuring that every person in our country benefits from policing that is lawful, transparent and non-discriminatory. This is one of the Civil Rights Division’s highest priorities. We approach this work with urgency as we know that people’s civil and constitutional rights are at stake, as is the legitimacy of our justice system in the eyes of the communities that we serve.
The Civil Rights Division is charged with holding accountable individual law enforcement officers who willfully deprive people of their civil or constitutional rights. Since January 2021, the Justice Department has charged more than 50 defendants and, to date, convicted more than 40 defendants. This includes the convictions of all four officers involved in the tragic killing of George Floyd. The department also charged four current and former Louisville Metro Police Department officers with federal crimes related to Breonna Taylor’s death in Louisville, Kentucky, in 2020. Last month, one of the former officers admitted that she conspired with a colleague to falsify an affidavit to obtain a warrant to search Ms. Taylor’s home without probable cause — actions that resulted in Ms. Taylor’s death. This former officer also admitted that she and her colleague sought to cover up the false warrant by lying to criminal investigators after Breonna Taylor was killed. We will leave no stone unturned in our quest for justice.
These prosecutions demonstrate that we will seek accountability for officers whose actions, or failure to intervene, violate the law. Simply put, George Floyd and Breonna Taylor should be alive today.
We are also committed to addressing unconstitutional policing through our authority to conduct “pattern or practice investigations” of police departments. These investigations focus on systemic and widespread police practices and seek to create institutional change within law enforcement agencies. When we open these investigations, the rights we tend to focus on include the rights to be free from excessive force; unreasonable stops and searches; arrests without warrants or sufficient cause, or in retaliation for exercising free speech rights; and discrimination based on race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, disability and sex, including sexual orientation and gender identity.
Since last year, the department has opened new pattern or practice investigations of the police departments in Louisville; Minneapolis; Phoenix; Mount Vernon, New York; the New York City Police Department’s Special Victims Unit; and the Louisiana State Police. This work will remain a priority on the road ahead. These investigations can be lengthy and resource-intensive, but they have the potential for transformative change in police departments and communities.
The department is also hard at work reviewing its grant programs and other services to state and local law enforcement to ensure that recipients do not discriminate with federal dollars. Similarly, the department is playing a leading role across the federal government in implementing President Biden’s recent executive order on law enforcement, entitled Advancing Effective, Accountable Policing and Criminal Justice Practices to Enhance Public Trust and Public Safety. This work is critically important, and we know there is more to be done.
I would be remiss if I did not address what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once described as “the most powerful instrument ever devised by human beings for breaking down injustice” — voting rights. Equal access to the ballot box is foundational to equity in all spheres of society.
We all know that voter suppression is alive and well. Across the country, we continue to see efforts by certain states and jurisdictions to implement discriminatory, burdensome and unnecessary restrictions on access to the ballot. We also see jurisdictions adopting discriminatory redistricting plans that dilute the voting strength of Black voters and other voters of color. And the Department of Justice’s tools in this space have been limited by recent decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Notwithstanding these challenges, this administration and the Department of Justice remain steadfast in our commitment to making sure that all eligible voters can cast a vote; that all lawful votes are counted; and that every voter can cast a ballot free from discrimination and harassment.
To carry out this goal, we recently issued guidance for a category of citizens who are often overlooked: our community members who have been convicted of crimes. We are providing state-specific information to citizens who have been convicted of crimes and returning citizens to help them retain or regain their right to vote.
We have also filed multiple lawsuits across the country and supported other voting rights litigation to protect voting rights for all Americans, especially for our nation’s most vulnerable communities. For example:
- Texas, we sued to stop Senate Bill 1, which impairs the rights of Black and Latino voters to vote absentee and, when they vote in person, to receive help in the voting booth from their assistors of choice.
- We also sued Galveston County, Texas, challenging redistricting plans that deny Black and Latino voters an equal opportunity to elect their candidates of choice.
- In Arizona, we sued to stop HB 2492, which imposes numerous unlawful restrictions on voter registration.
- The division has also filed briefs in voting rights cases in Florida, Arkansas, North Dakota and South Dakota. Some of these briefs touch on very critical issues related to voting rights enforcement.
In short, the department is committed to rooting out and challenging voter suppression wherever it rears its ugly head. Through our enforcement work, we will keep fighting to make sure everyone can vote, all those votes are counted and the results of those votes are honored.
Even as we engage in these longstanding areas of the Civil Rights Division’s work, we are also advancing new initiatives to ensure that we are meeting all of our current challenges to equity. Earlier this year, the Attorney General announced a Comprehensive Environmental Justice Enforcement Strategy.
We know that environmental, economic, health and infrastructure challenges are compounded by ongoing public health and severe weather events, and are disproportionately experienced by Black and Latino communities. Nationally, Black Americans are 75% more likely than other Americans to live in a fence-line community near hazardous waste. They are exposed to 1.5 times as much air pollution. That is why we are committed to using all of the tools at our disposal — including federal civil rights laws — to address environmental justice concerns.
In November 2021, the Civil Rights Division announced the opening of an environmental justice investigation into the wastewater disposal and infectious disease and outbreaks programs of the Alabama Department of Health and Lowndes County Health Department. In the absence of viable wastewater disposal solutions, for generations, many residents have had little choice but to resort to the practice of “straight-piping” bathwater, fecal matter and other waste away from their homes. Straight piping is a method of guiding human waste away from a residence using a series of ditches or crudely constructed piping systems. This straight-piped waste then spews into trenches and pits formed in residents’ backyards or in the surrounding woods and open areas. During rainstorms or flooding, this fecal matter and other raw sewage can back up into the residences’ sinks, toilets and bathtubs. Without effective septic systems, the heavier rainfall and flooding exacerbated by climate change saturates the impermeable soil and the waste matter has nowhere to go. It remains on the surface or backs into county residents’ homes.
Why is this problematic? Raw sewage contains disease-causing pathogens, including viruses, bacteria, worms and protozoa. Diseases resulting from exposure to raw sewage can range from stomach flu and upper respiratory infections to potentially life-threatening illnesses, such as Hepatitis B. This investigation seeks to determine whether the state and county health departments are discriminating against Black residents in violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in the operation of these programs. Title VI prohibits recipients of federal financial assistance from discriminating on the basis of race, color or national origin.
Sanitation is a basic human need, and no one in the United States should be exposed to risk of illness and other serious harm because of inadequate access to safe and effective sewage management. State and local health officials are obligated, under federal civil rights laws, to protect the health and safety of all their residents. We are conducting a fair and thorough investigation of these environmental justice concerns and their impact on the health, life and safety of people across Lowndes County, Alabama. This investigation marks the Department of Justice’s first Title VI environmental justice investigation for one of the department’s funding recipients.
In July, the Civil Rights Division opened an investigation to determine whether the City of Houston complies with the nondiscrimination requirements of Title VI in its response to illegal dumping. The investigation was prompted in part by a complaint sent from Lone Star Legal Aid. The investigation is looking to determine whether residents in Northeast Houston are subject to the illegal dumping of household furniture, mattresses, tires, medical waste, trash, dead bodies, and vandalized ATM machines and other items dumped and abandoned in their community. Illegal dumpsites not only attract rodents, mosquitos and other vermin that pose health risks, but they can also contaminate surface water and impact proper drainage, making areas more susceptible to flooding. No community should be exposed to risk of illness and other serious harm because of ineffective solid waste management or inadequate enforcement programs. Illegal dumpsites deny residents the ability to enjoy their communities and strips vulnerable communities of the ability to lead their lives with full dignity and respect. We will conduct a fair and thorough investigation of these environmental justice concerns and their impact on Black and Latino communities in the city of Houston.
Addressing discriminatory environmental and health impacts through enforcement of the nation’s civil rights laws is vital to advancing equity.
Finally, I would like to highlight the department’s firm commitment to upholding the fair lending laws and to taking enforcement actions that lead to lasting and meaningful changes for communities. Efforts to combat discriminatory lending practices that exacerbate wealth disparities and promote economic injustice are integral to achieving an equitable society.
For American families, homeownership remains the principal means of building wealth. Deprivation of investment in and denial of access to mortgage lending services have contributed to families of color persistently lagging behind in homeownership rates and net worth compared to white families.
For centuries, Black, Indigenous and other people of color in America have been denied access to homes, property and credit through various mechanisms and institutions. Housing segregation — borne from forced displacement, as well as Jim Crow laws, racial covenants, steering and a variety of other institutional barriers — limited the housing options for people of color to particular neighborhoods. It is in precisely this segregated environment that redlining could exist, develop and flourish. The federal government institutionalized the practice of redlining through actions of the Federal Housing Administration and the Homeowners’ Loan Corporation. Private lenders also implemented policies and procedures that denied credit to neighborhoods because of their racial demographics. Together, the government and the private sector formalized a system that denied access to credit and limited homeownership opportunities for communities of color.
This made it extremely difficult for people of color to accumulate wealth through the purchase, refinance or repair of their homes, resulting in large homeownership disparities by race and national origin. In response, local and national advocacy groups pushed for legislation to eliminate these disparities and other forms of housing discrimination — efforts that ultimately came to fruition. And in the over 50 years of enforcement of the Fair Housing Act, and 40 years of enforcement of the Equal Credit Opportunity Act and the Community Reinvestment Act, our country has made strides towards addressing redlining.
However, a problem that was centuries in the making can’t and won’t disappear overnight. The extent of the disparities remains staggering. The median family wealth of a Black family is $24,100 compared to $188,200 for a white family; that is about seven and a half times less. Today, the gap in homeownership rates between white and Black families is larger than it was in 1960, before the passage of the Fair Housing Act of 1968.
Ending redlining is a critical step in closing the widening gaps in wealth between communities of color and others. Persisting racial inequality and widening wealth gaps make clear that simply staying the course is not enough. We must take bold, new action if we are ever going to eradicate redlining, and achieve the goal of equal opportunity in our country.
As we do so, we fully recognize and acknowledge the federal government’s role in creating and perpetuating redlining. But because of the federal government’s role, not simply in spite of it, the Civil Rights Division is compelled to tackle this issue head-on. That is why the Department of Justice launched the Combating Redlining Initiative late last year. The Combating Redlining Initiative represents the department’s most aggressive and coordinated enforcement effort to address redlining.
The Justice Department has authority to investigate and file fair lending lawsuits under the Fair Housing Act and the Equal Credit Opportunity Act. Relying on this authority, the Combating Redlining Initiative examines lenders across the country and analyzes whether they may be engaging in redlining, in violation of these laws.
Several U.S. Attorneys’ Offices are acting as force multipliers as part of the Combating Redlining Initiative. Their participation helps ensure that fair lending enforcement is informed by local expertise on housing markets and the credit needs of local communities of color. And our partnership allows us to analyze lending patterns by all types of lenders of all sizes, including non-depository institutions and credit unions.
As part of the department’s initiative to combat redlining, the Civil Rights Division has secured multiple settlements. We announced the initiative along with a settlement against Trustmark National Bank, which we achieved jointly with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, resolving the government’s allegation that Trustmark engaged in lending discrimination by redlining predominantly Black and Hispanic neighborhoods in Memphis, Tennessee, from 2014 to 2018. The bank is working now to improve its fair lending compliance and has demonstrated a commitment to the terms and goals of this settlement.
As part of the settlement, Trustmark agreed to invest $3.85 million in a loan subsidy fund to increase credit opportunities for residents of predominantly Black and Hispanic neighborhoods in the Memphis area. Loan subsidy funds help level the playing field so that every qualified applicant has an equal opportunity to obtain credit. They also agreed to dedicate mortgage loan officers or community lending specialists to these neighborhoods and open a loan production office in a majority-Black and Hispanic neighborhood in Memphis. They pledged to dedicate hundreds of thousands of dollars to develop community partnerships that provide residents of majority-Black and Hispanic neighborhoods in Memphis with services to help increase their access to residential mortgage credit, as well as spend large sums on advertising, outreach, consumer financial education and credit repair initiatives in and around Memphis.
In July, the department secured its first agreement with a mortgage company accused of discriminating against underserved communities. The Department of Justice, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) and the Attorneys General of Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware arrived at a settlement to resolve allegations that Trident Mortgage Company, which is owned by Berkshire Hathaway, engaged in a pattern or practice of lending discrimination by redlining in the Philadelphia metropolitan area, including neighborhoods in Philadelphia, Camden and Wilmington. The complaint alleged that from at least 2015 to 2019, Trident failed to provide mortgage lending services to neighborhoods of color in the Philadelphia metro area, that its offices were concentrated in majority-white neighborhoods, and that its loan officers did not serve the credit needs of neighborhoods of color. The complaint also alleged that loan officers and other employees sent and received work emails containing racial slurs and referring to communities of color as “ghetto.” The resolution with Trident was the first redlining settlement that the Justice Department has reached with a non-bank lender and the second largest redlining settlement in the department’s history. This settlement ensures that significant lending resources will be infused into neighborhoods of color in and around Philadelphia that have historically experienced racial discrimination.
We know that litigation alone can’t fix the harm that redlining has caused to neighborhoods across the country. But the relief awarded in these cases expands financial opportunities for historically underserved residents in communities of color and also improves lenders’ compliance management systems, expanding their lending opportunities and often leading to increased profits for the banks. The proliferation of programs by financial institutions that engage, support and extend credit to long-underserved and often-ignored communities can go a long way toward repairing some of the damage that has been done by decades of disinvestment and centuries of discrimination. The Justice Department will continue our enforcement of fair housing laws to ensure equal opportunity to access credit.
As I said at the outset, we are living through difficult times and confronting many difficult challenges to equity. But we have been here before. Patricia Roberts Harris, a distinguished GW Law School graduate and Justice Department alum, fought for equity as the first Black women to serve in the cabinet – in 1977 – as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development and then as Secretary of Health and Human Services, among many other firsts. When she returned to GW Law School to teach, she helped usher in a new era at GW. And you see her legacy today in the Equity Institute Initiative. I am so excited to see the fruits of this work and to see how your scholarship will continue to make this country a more equitable place.
I know that without path-breaking women of color like Patricia Roberts Harris, I would not be here today as the first Senate-confirmed Black woman to lead the Civil Rights Division. I look forward to working with you all to help secure civil rights and equal justice. And now, it would be my pleasure to answer some questions.