If we had lost track of the degree to which civil society had advanced the causes of civil rights over the past decade, all we have to do is watch the rescissions and rollbacks now emerging from the Trump administration and the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ). It seems as though we’re watching those gains be reversed like a filmstrip run backward. But, is that actually the case? Those concerned with civil rights may have lost the support of the federal administration on many issues, but will we lose the gained ground completely?
Will we, for instance, lose the bipartisan interest in eliminating massive over-incarceration in a rush to join in a fact-barren bluster about the rise of crime? Or forget what we saw when the DOJ and many others held a steady, research-infused spotlight on the effects of persistent racial discrimination on our nation’s courts and policing agencies? Or lose the degree to which the myriad rights of LGBTQ folks were being acknowledged? And, not to paint too rosy a picture—the work was far from done—but what will the current takebacks mean for the shape of civil rights activism?
Yesterday, a group of leaders from some of the more traditional civil rights groups met with Attorney General Jeff Sessions to voice their objection to certain actions taken by the Trump administration and the DOJ and to urge Sessions to pursue justice on behalf of all Americans, especially the most marginalized. Among those at Tuesday’s meeting were Wade Henderson, president and CEO, The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights; Kristen Clarke, president & executive director, Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law; Rev. Al Sharpton, founder and president, National Action Network; Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel, NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund; Melanie L. Campbell, president and CEO, National Coalition on Black Civic Participation and convener, Black Women’s Roundtable; and Marc Morial, president and CEO, National Urban League.
By all accounts, they were forthright about their issues. Here is their statement following that meeting:
Today we met with Attorney General Sessions to present the agenda of the national civil rights community that includes the protection of voting rights, aggressive enforcement of hate crimes and the Violence Against Women Act, criminal justice reform and enforcement of police department consent decrees, and protections for LGBTQ people. We also expressed our profound disappointment and grave concern regarding recent Department of Justice actions, including the revised Muslim travel ban announced by the administration on Monday.
We are deeply troubled by the steps already taken by the Attorney General to abdicate his responsibility to enforce civil rights laws affecting access to voting, oversight of troubled police departments, and the protection of LGBTQ individuals. We encouraged the Attorney General to prioritize protection of marginalized people and robust enforcement of existing civil rights laws. We urged him to fully fund and support the Civil Rights Division.
We also called on the Department to continue the smart-on-crime initiatives focused on eliminating disparities in federal prosecutions of low-level drug offenses and to bring its full resources to bear in addressing increases in hate violence across the country. We urged the Department to fully enforce the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), by encouraging the Trump administration and Congress to fully fund VAWA and to fully staff the Office of Violence Against Women and Office of Victims of Crime. We also asked the Attorney General to counsel the president against mass deportations of undocumented individuals.
To our dismay, the Attorney General offered no commitment to ensure all of the nation’s civil rights laws are enforced and that people of color, women, language minorities, immigrants, individuals with disabilities, seniors, religious minorities, and LGBTQ communities will be protected from discrimination and violence.
The Attorney General must be above partisan politics and pursue justice on behalf of all Americans, especially the most marginalized in our society. We will continue to oppose any efforts to erode civil rights or backtrack on important progress that has been made. Too much is at stake for us to remain silent.
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According to Josh Gerstein of Politico, the assembled leaders raised the alleged issue of widespread voter fraud as it relates to voters’ rights. Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, reports that she asked Sessions “to counsel the president against the creation of such a task force and a commission because that commission will be seen to intimidate our communities.”
In the absence of any evidence of voter fraud, he should be counseling the president away from such a course….We don’t need an investigation into something that doesn’t exist. We should not be crediting the fantasies of this president at the cost of African Americans and Latinos feeling secure that they’re not being intimidated from voting and participating in the process.
Voter fraud has been studied time and again. I repeated to the attorney general what has been found in those studies: that you have a greater chance of being struck by lightning than participating in in-person voter fraud and that any effort by this administration to advance an investigation in search of this mythological voter fraud that targets our communities will be met with our resistance.
The central narrative of having to defend against those who are different—the shadowy, dishonest and violent “other,” the hordes threatening good Americans from without and within—is a nationalist mainstay. That narrative does not need to be supported by facts, and it’s antithetical to the cause of civil rights. As Emily Bazelon wrote in the New York Times Magazine, “On issues like immigration and voting rights, with public perceptions influenced by inflated tales of criminality (improper use of benefits, voter fraud), a Sessions-led Department of Justice can both feed the narrative of crime and react to it, through heightened investigations and prosecutions. A civil rights system built up to protect the minority from the majority could quickly turn into the reverse.”
In the end, the only thing Sessions agreed to look into was the long-running federal investigation into the death of Eric Garner, an African American man killed by police in 2014.
This meeting followed one on Friday between AG Sessions and Cornell William Brooks, the president of the NAACP, who had objected strenuously to Sessions’ nomination. (Indeed, he had been arrested trying to make that point.) After that meeting, Brooks expressed concern that the Department of Justice had withdrawn its objection to a stringent Texas Voter ID law, which the Obama administration had sued to block on the grounds that it was discriminatory.
It has, of course, been a tough few weeks for those concerned with the protection of civil rights. In late February, Sessions advocated successfully for President Trump to rescind Obama’s transgender “bathroom order.” On February 28th, Sessions began to back off the initiative to monitor and hold accountable racially discriminatory police departments and court systems at the federal level. We could go on at length, but all of us are watching the same scene unfold.
There’s a portion of the populace that already appears to understand that much of the fight will land in the courts and be explicated in the press, and they have flocked to fund the ACLU and journalistic efforts. But, as we are acutely aware, the non-brand-name advocates at the grassroots nonprofits from which much of the networked action will flow won’t necessarily be included in this effusion of giving. Those groups will need to be able to sustain themselves over what look to some tough years ahead for civil rights.