Vanita Gupta, the DOJ's Civil Rights warrior
Mic | Published June 9, 2017
By AARON MORRISON, Senior Writer
One of Vanita Gupta's earliest memories involved what some might consider a hate crime.
Gupta was born in Philadelphia in the mid-1970s to immigrants from India. Before her fifth birthday, Gupta's parents had temporarily plucked her and an older sister out of the City of Brotherly Love, so their father could take a job in the U.K.
They arrived in England shortly after the election of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who had exploited Britons' fear of immigrants in her rise to power. England's racist skinhead movement was surging.
"There were skinheads sitting next to us [at a McDonald’s] and sort of flicking french fries at me and my grandmother and my mom and sister," Gupta recently said in a sit-down interview with Mic. "They were yelling at us, 'Go home Pakis! Get out of this country!'" Gupta recalled. "Paki" is a slur against South Asians.
More than 35 years later, Gupta has embarked on a career as a civil rights lawyer in the United States, has overseen racial justice cases at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and has served as head of the Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division. Her time at the DOJ ended after two years, with the inauguration of President Donald Trump in January. Trump's rise to power has been accompanied by a spike in hatred directed at immigrants and Muslims, including members of Gupta's family in suburban Pennsylvania. Things have come full circle for Gupta, and now she's in a position to be part of the resistance.
"That gives me solace because it means that we're in this temporary period of retrenchment and backlash," Gupta said. "But I also know that there is tremendous harm that gets done. We have to be able to protect our communities and stand up for our values, against all odds."
Trump's presidency and the appointment of a reputably anti-civil rights attorney general, Jeff Sessions, helped to focus Gupta's priorities, as she considered what to do once she left public service. She'd already led investigations into each of the high-profile police shooting cases that have fueled Black Lives Matter protests across the country since 2014, resulting in scathing reports of abuses by officers in Ferguson, Missouri, Baltimore and Chicago, and court-enforced reform agreements. Gupta also helped fend off suppression of the minority vote in Texas ahead of the 2016 presidential election, and stood up for transgender students whose access to bathrooms became a hot-debated topic in several states.
Now, Gupta is leveraging her experience at the DOJ as the new president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, the nation's largest coalition of legacy and grassroots social justice groups. Criminal justice reform, voting rights and the protection of immigrants are top of mind as she settles into the new role, Gupta said in an interview at the Leadership Conference's Washington, D.C., office. The work will happen in the face of an across-the-board and unprecedented rollback on civil rights, police reform and LGBTQ protections, which are maintained by the DOJ office that Gupta once led.
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