The Enduring Importance of Civil Rights

CAP Event Examines Continuing Need to Maintain Fundamental Freedoms

Tom Perez, assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Division at the U.S. Department of Justice, sat down with CAP President Neera Tanden this week to discuss how to make sure all citizens enjoy the basic rights upheld in the Constitution.

The United States faces many pressing civil rights issues. On November 16 CAP’s Legal Progress project hosted an event with CAP President Neera Tanden and Tom Perez, assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Division at the U.S. Department of Justice, in which the two discussed many civil rights issues that the nation is currently dealing with and what the Department of Justice is doing about them.

In his opening statements, Director of Legal Progress Andrew Blotky said, “It bears remembering … that the most fundamental rights in our Constitution, from our nation’s founding all the way through to today, are civil rights. They are the most basic, most cherished, most fundamental rights in our democracy, and indeed are the subject of hard-fought battles for their expansion over the last two hundred years.”

He talked about the presence of civil rights in everyday life and noted that “civil rights are truly front and center in our national dialogue today, and are what make our nation stand above the rest in terms of freedom, liberty, and equality.”

But he said that civil rights are not always upheld fairly in practice, and it is the job of the Civil Rights Division at the U.S. Department of Justice to make sure that they are.

Under the leadership of Perez, the Civil Rights Division has become much more depoliticized, and they have moved back to “merit-based hiring” rather than hiring that is politically based—so that the division has the best, most qualified lawyers and staff enforcing civil rights.

Tanden and Perez discussed which civil rights issues America faces today. Perez discussed voting rights, saying that “there’s this narrative that we’re in postracial America and discrimination is a thing of the past. I wish they were right. But we see in our voting practice that this is not the case.”

Perez went on to discuss the various ways his division is enforcing voting rights laws and the Justice Department’s role in redistricting around the country.

When asked about “emerging issues,” Perez talked about bullying in schools of Muslim, Arab, and South Asian children, and of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer, or LGBTQ, children. The Civil Rights Division, said Perez, is using “existing discrimination laws to combat bullying.”

When asked to discuss civil rights in light of the Occupy Wall Street Movements, Perez said that his job “is to build an opportunity society” that provides the opportunity to learn through the enforcement of education laws, earn through the enforcement of employment laws, realize the American Dream through the enforcement of fair housing and fair lending laws, and be safe through police misconduct reform.

Perez and Tanden agreed that the United States is not yet past its racial divisions. Perez quoted Sen. Edward Kennedy in saying that “civil rights remains the unfinished business of America.”

The Civil Rights Division, through its work, sees the reality of discrimination in America, both agreed, even in light of our great strides toward equality.

Perez also discussed the recent immigration laws in Alabama and Arizona. “We need comprehensive immigration reform,” he said. “[President Obama] is absolutely committed to comprehensive immigration reform.”

He said immigration reform is a necessity both from an economic and a faith standpoint, and also from a “moral and ethical imperative.”

Perez is proud that under his direction, the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice has both reformed systems, such as the mental health system of Delaware, and managed to take on the “individual cases” of U.S. citizens. But his work isn’t finished. Civil rights issues are and will remain important for some time to come, and we need to make sure that all people are treated equally and fairly.

For more on this event, please see its event page.

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