A comment someone made on Facebook after President Obama’s speech in Selma has been rolling around in the back of my mind for a while now. I’m not going to link to it because my purpose is not to call out the individual. But it captured some things we’ve heard before.

Basically this person was criticizing the President for not talking more specifically about how racial issues manifest themselves today or proposing policies that address them. Here’s just a bit of it:

On such a stage as he had yesterday, I feel it would have been prudent for him to address the particular issues that we face. To detail the real world problems that the “long shadow” of racism has created and to bring to the table real policy positions that could address our present reality.

Instead, I feel, he offered only hopeful language and dazzling rhetoric.

Regardless of whether you think the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of Selma was the place for such specifics (I don’t), that comment points to the way in which too many of us assume that change only happens in this country via Congress or the Courts. The reason I say that is because this person obviously has not paid attention to how the actions of the Executive branch of government have addressed those issues.

Just one example I would point to is what has happened at the Department of Justice – specifically with the Civil Rights Division (created in 1957 to enforce Civil Rights laws). Some people might remember how that division was corrupted during the Bush/Cheney administration. Everything about the division became politicized – including hirings, firings and prosecutions. Here’s how Joseph Rich, chief of the Voting Rights section from 1999 to 2005, described it in 2007:

Over the last six years, this Justice Department has ignored the advice of its staff and skewed aspects of law enforcement in ways that clearly were intended to influence the outcome of elections.

It has notably shirked its legal responsibility to protect voting rights. From 2001 to 2006, no voting discrimination cases were brought on behalf of African American or Native American voters. U.S. attorneys were told instead to give priority to voter fraud cases, which, when coupled with the strong support for voter ID laws, indicated an intent to depress voter turnout in minority and poor communities.

But it wasn’t just voting rights. Stephen Rushin, a professor at the University of Illinois Law School, has studied the implementation of the portion of the 1991 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act that gave the Civil Rights Division of DOJ the authority to investigate systemic problems within law enforcement departments and implement reforms. He found that – rather suddenly in 2005 (when Gonzales became Attorney General) – the number of investigations declined sharply. His research found that, at that time, the division quit working with civil rights organizations (who often initiated the investigations) and instead simply offered voluntary technical assistance to law enforcement units.

What we see is that on at least two issues that are of primary importance in maintaining civil rights in this country – voting rights and investigating police misconduct – the Executive branch of our government purposefully dropped the ball.

All of that changed with the Obama administration. At a speech in 2010, Assistant Attorney General in charge of the Civil Rights Division Tom Perez, said this:

In case you haven’t heard, the Civil Rights Division is once again open for business. Our job is to enforce the civil rights laws – all of the laws – and to do so fairly, thoroughly and independently.

President Obama and Attorney General Holder have made the restoration and transformation of the Civil Rights Division a top priority. The Attorney General has called the Division the “crown jewel” of the Justice Department. As a result of the President and Attorney General’s leadership, and the support of Congress, the Division has received one of the largest infusions of resources in its history.

That talk was backed up by plenty of walk. It all began with the Civil Rights Division hiring attorneys with actual civil rights experience. The Division has been aggressive in defending voting rights and investigating police misconduct. On the latter:

The Obama administration has used its power aggressively to take on widespread problems of police brutality, discrimination and other abuse in local jurisdictions, negotiating more settlement agreements than either the Clinton or George W. Bush administrations.

I would simply note that the Civil Rights Division of DOJ started an investigation of the Cleveland Police Department more than a year before Tamir Rice was killed.

That summarizes the importance of leadership in the Executive branch of our government by looking at just one department. We could note similar changes in, for example, the fact that under Bush the Department of Education stopped collecting racial data from public schools. When the practice was re-instituted in the Obama administration, the information provided the impetus for investigations and disciplinary reforms that disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline.

By focusing only on Congress and the Courts, we completely neglect the power of the Executive branch to implement change (either good or bad). It’s true that with his “pen and phone strategy,” President Obama is beginning to open our eyes to this oversight. But really…its been happening all along.

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