Vanita Gupta, 42, who was the Justice Department’s chief of the Civil Rights Division, and takes over June 1, as head of the largest civil rights organization in the U.S., says the community must push back against all hate rhetoric and deepen political engagement at the grassroots level.
In a wide-ranging interview with News India Times, Gupta spoke of what inspired her to become one of the foremost civil rights leaders in this country and on June 1, takes over as the president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, and the sister organization, Leadership Conference Education Fund, the first woman in the history of that venerable organization, to lead it.
Born in Philadelphia and brought up in several parts of the U.S. and in the United Kingdom, Gupta’s passion for justice grew out of an early memory as a 4 year old, when a group of rowdy skinheads in a McDonalds in U.K. taunted her family members shouting “Go Home Pakis.”
To this day, she says, that feeling of “we don’t belong,” makes her conscious of who is in a room, what is their experience, what is their background. “I ended up feeling very committed to improve the environment for everyone” Gupta said.
Parents who encouraged her to be “very engaged”; a sister whose coming out as gay with its attendant problems in the family, combined with a series of civil rights internships – made her the first lawyer in her family.
“I’ve had a lot of heroes. My grandmother – she had six kids in 8 years, was the first to finish high school and go into graduate school. She was very strong and believed in education,” Gupta said. Throughout her life many people, professors, activists, family, have been “meaningful” in her life.
And “There’s no question that President Obama was, is a real light for us – a community organizer, a civil rights activist and constitutional law expert… I am ever indebted to him for picking me when civil rights was front and center,” Gupta said.
High profile matters that Gupta navigated at DOJ included investigations of the Ferguson, Baltimore, Cleveland, and Chicago police departments; the appeals of the Texas and North Carolina voter ID cases; the challenge to North Carolina’s transgender bathroom law; enforcement of education, land use, hate crimes, and other statutes to combat Islamophobia and other forms of religious discrimination, and a host of other issues.
With a new administration in place, Gupta believes it is an “unprecedented time of challenge to civil rights.”
“We have an administration that has, even in the first few weeks, undermined civil rights, and threatened people’s idea of what this country is about.”
The country is going to see a “lot” of challenges in coming months and years, she predicted. “Some of what we did is going to be eroded, but not erased,” Gupta says on an optimistic note. She sees a “coming together” of different races, regions, ethnicities, all calling for fairness and inclusion.
“It’s an incredibly polarized time. But even in the face of the Muslim travel ban, you saw lawyers going to airports and the levels of activism (was high).
“People are very protective of what this country believes in,” she says. “The only way that we can preserve what America stands for is if people are willing to stand up.” Even within the South Asian community, Gupta sees people who were not activists before, finding ways to engage, whether by donating or joining protests.
She recalled that when she headed the Civil Rights Division at the Justice Department, prosecuting hate crimes, “There’s no question we found an uptick in hate crime and hate crime allegations.”
It was not a question of “misidentification” of South Asians as Middle Easterners, Gupta contends. “It was a rhetoric centered on Muslims but implicating anyone who looked Muslim. It has been deeply disturbing.”
“We see pronouncements normalizing hate. And Kansas shows how dangerous that is,” Gupta says referencing the shooting death Feb. 22, of Srinivas Kuchibhotla, an IT engineer in Olathe, Kansas, at the hands of a white man.
“The Justice Department should vigorously prosecute these cases,” Gupta says. “We need to push back against this rhetoric. We’re seeing a lot of Americans are pushing back – whether they are immigrants or not, they are disgusted with it.”
At the Leadership Conference, Gupta has already has an initiative going, Communities Against Hate, that is developing a data base to document hate crime and bullying, connecting victims to each other. “There’s a feeling the Justice Department will not … so we are stepping up.”