By Shane Hisner
Thomas Perez. Photo by Shane Hisner.
Thomas Perez, the Assistant Attorney General of the United States’s Civil Rights Division, delivered an explosive Constitution Day speech in West Lecture Hall on Thursday. The longtime civil rights lawyer had no shortage of things to talk about in his speech titled, “Why we need a Civil Rights Division in the year 2010.” From immigration to LGBT rights to the Americans with Disabilities Act, Perez eloquently laid out the causes that he has spent a career in public service fighting for.
President Krislov, whose friendship with Perez dates back to their time together in the Civil Rights Division over 20 years ago, introduced Perez as “the very model of a selfless public servant and an engaged and active American citizen.”
From the beginning, his tone was commanding. Perez was quick to lay out his position on the Constitution. “It is a document that is very near and dear to my heart.” He went on, “If we were to poll test some of the provisions of the Constitution today, they probably wouldn’t poll very well.” This assertion became the underlying theme of Perez’s address.
“There are times in our nation’s history when we are sailing into headwinds. Right now we are sailing into a significant headwind,” declared Perez. To drive his point home, he spoke primarily about cases he and the Civil Rights Division have worked on in the last year–cases that shed light on the pressing, even scary, issues confronting civil rights today.
He told stories of heinous racially-driven hate crimes–a father-son duo assaulting an African-American with a chainsaw in South Carolina, the police cover-up of a racially-driven murder of a Latino in Pennsylvania, a mosque burned to the ground in Tennessee, a re-segregated school district in Mississippi. “This isn’t America in 1969 and 1970. This is America in 2009 and 2010,” Perez emphasized after every story.
He spoke about the less blatant issues the Civil Rights Division addresses, such as predatory loans targeting African-Americans, an issue that strikes a chord for Clevelanders especially. His compassion was palpable as he spoke of the families “under water because of these toxic loans.”
Perez directly addressed the issues surrounding immigration in the Southwest, damning Senate Bill 1070 in Arizona as unconstitutional. “There is one quarterback when it comes to immigration, and that quarterback is the United States Government…because immigration decisions have foreign policy consequences, law enforcement consequences, humanitarian consequences.”
Perez, who has worked in the Civil Rights Division for the last four presidential administrations, had much to say concerning the traditional non-partisanship of the judiciary. “I was on the hiring committee (of the Civil Rights Division) in 1992 under the elder Bush, and in 1993 and ‘94 under President Clinton. Our mission was identical, and that was, ‘Hire the most qualified people.’”
That non-partisan tradition “broke down” under the second Bush. “The process was hijacked,” disclosed Perez, who emphatically expressed satisfaction in the Obama Administration for returning non-partisanship to the Civil Rights Division.
As to the question of why we need a Civil Rights Division in the year 2010, he was quite frank. “The first time I was asked that question, I didn’t take it seriously. Quite honestly, for me it was self-evident…I couldn’t understand why people would ask that question.” When the question continued cropping up in conversation, Perez says, was when he began considering it “part of his job to educate people about why we still need a Civil Rights Division.
“We have indeed made a lot of progress, and we should be proud of the progress we have made as a nation, but we have indeed so much longer to go. The journey to equal opportunity is a long journey and a hard journey, but it’s a journey we must go on to give meaning to the Constitution,” Perez asserted.
There was, perhaps, one hiccup in his otherwise inspiring presentation when a gentleman from the American Civil Liberties Union asked about Guantanamo Bay during the Q&A. Perez spoke vaguely. “We are attempting to move forward as fairly and constitutionally and expeditiously as possible.” He cited the contentious political atmosphere surrounding the issue as one roadblock concerning this issue.
His message to Oberlin students was a clear one. “We need people like you that are going to turn headwinds into tailwinds. I hope you use this university campus to have that robust debate about the meaning of the Constitution…We’re going to need people fighting for civil rights in the future. I hope you will be those people tomorrow.
Perez ended his speech with a dose of humor. “I’m getting old, I need a knee replacement, I’ve got no hair, and I need your help.”