My brief tenure as a Civil Rights Division attorney at the U.S. Department of Justice coincided with the events of September 11, 2001. In the aftermath, it became evident that the department’s mission to enforce the civil rights laws of vulnerable communities was often at odds with its twin mandate to protect the nation’s security. Still, I believed then, as I do now, that the department should be the conscience of the federal government, especially in times of national crisis. And in turn, its attorney general must stand at the forefront of that initiative.
Our country’s racial demographics are quickly shifting. As we transform into a nation in which people of color will be the majority population, we can expect both a heightened sense of racial anxiety as well as misguided assertions that discrimination has run its course. That is why it will be important for the new attorney general to affirm the existence and impact of systemic racial discrimination in our nation, and to ensure that confronting it remains a central priority of the agency in the years ahead.
Publicly contextualizing the past and current role that racism plays in the experiences of communities of color should be the norm, not the exception, among policymakers and elected officials. The new attorney general will undoubtedly continue to use litigation, investigations, and agency coordination under the Civil Rights Division’s leadership to enforce individual rights under anti-discrimination laws. But he or she should also prioritize tackling the racial bias that has entrenched itself in the bedrock of institutions of power in our country.
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For instance, ramping up “pattern or practice” investigations by the Civil Rights Division could unearth and address underlying racial disparities in the leadership of organizations around the United States. In particular, this must include investigations of police departments accused of misconduct and violence against communities of color—as we have seen this summer in Ferguson, Missouri—or that engage in surveillance of religious minorities—as we have seen in activities of the New York Police Department since 9/11. The department should also buttress efforts of the Community Relations Service to address race relations within local communities and to develop baseline trainings around implicit bias for federal employees and officers.
The new attorney general must initiate inter-agency task forces to address historic and emerging forms of bias affecting communities of color. He or she should call upon his or her federal counterparts at the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Education, for instance, in order to preserve civil rights laws in their ongoing activities. Examples of immediate concern include removing biased materials used in intelligence gathering and law enforcement training. Another timely initiative pertains to the federal government’s guidance on racial profiling. The Justice Department already seems poised to change these standards in response to longstanding requests from civil rights advocates; it is imperative that the department then take the lead on implementing the new regulations and coordinating a complaint process to determine whether officers are actually following them.
Our new attorney general must not equivocate on issues of race and systemic racism. Instead, he or she must help set the stage for how we can collectively advance a vision of racial equity in the 21st century.