When Vanita Gupta led the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division under President Obama, her desk became a kind of central command in the battle to make America great — not again, but for the first time.
Thanks to Gupta and former Attorney General Loretta Lynch, the Division investigated police abuse and hate crimes. It committed resources and personnel to voting rights and fair housing protocols. It issued guidance to protect the LGBT population. And then it handed all that over to President Trump, who has since worked to undo just about every single one of its achievements.
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Gupta isn’t surprised, but when she begins to discuss Trump’s reaction to the violence in Charlottesville this weekend, her voice almost shakes. “It should have been an unequivocal denunciation of the alt-right, white supremacists, violent extremism, racial bigotry, [and] neo-Nazis who were out on the street marching,” she tells ELLE.com. “And we did not get that.”
Gupta is now the president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, an umbrella organization that represents some of the most prominent civil rights groups in the country, including AARP, American Association of People with Disabilities, ACLU, the Anti-Defamation League, the National Women’s Law Center, NAACP, and dozens more. All this to stress that she hasn’t watched the erosion of civil liberties over the past seven months at some kind of remove.
Since the inauguration, since the Muslim ban, since Kris Kobach’s sham voter fraud commission, Gupta has made her voice heard — loudly. And this week more than ever, she has little patience for those who aren’t actively putting their own platforms to the same use. Which means: Republicans, your tweeted statements of condemnation have not impressed Vanita Gupta. “This is where words are just not enough,” she says. “It is good to see those statements come off but putting words on a paper is a lot easier than having the actions and policy agenda to back it up.” Ari Berman, a writer for Mother Jones and the author of Give Us The Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America, put an even finer point on it on Twitter, running through the many, many times Republicans have moved to support “racist voter suppression laws” in states like North Carolina, Texas, Wisconsin, Indiana, and Ohio, where he cited a Reuters report that found black voters were “twice as likely as whites to be purged from voter rolls.”
“Look, white supremacy isn’t new, and it didn’t just crop up in the last year,” Gupta says. The fact is that “the racial terror imposed by white supremacy was part of our country’s founding.” And we’ll never root it out unless we’re able face it. Here, Gupta shows us how.
How should have the President of the United States responded to the events over the weekend in Charlottesville?
There’s no question that the President of the United States should have immediately on Saturday used his bully pulpit to very strongly and clearly condemn the white supremacists that were marching in his name, to have called for common peace, to have expressed his mourning and pain for the woman who lost her life and for all the others who injured in those 24 hours.
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But when you see David Duke take to the mic on national TV on Saturday [and say] that this rally was to fulfill the promise of the Donald Trump, and you have the Daily Stormer congratulating Donald Trump and celebrating the fact that his speech so clearly was the nod and the wink to their hatred — that says everything that we should need to know about how [the President’s] words or lack their of was a nod and a wink to that movement. I think there’s no question that his own silence emboldened [them] that day.
This is not just about what happened in Charlottesville. There’s a much bigger backdrop to this that we need to be very concerned about.
But I think it goes further back and I think this is where we need to remember that steps away from the Oval Office, this president has self-avowed, alt-right leaders like Stephen Bannon and Nazi sympathizers like Sebastian Gorka on his staff, who have in the past helped devise strategy for him. This administration has been promoting an agenda that is virulently anti-immigrant, even seeking to curb legal immigration, [has pushed for a] Muslim ban, has tried to undermine voting rights, particularly among communities of color, has pushed back on LGBT rights and the like. This is not just about what happened in Charlottesville. There’s a much bigger backdrop to this that we need to be very concerned about.