Posted by Guest on August 09, 2017 in Blog

By Kai Wiggins

Anthony Scaramucci’s tenure at the White House was akin to that of a roman candle exploding in the night. He was colorful. He was loud. He was made to entertain.

But he wasn’t here to stay. Like all good fireworks, the now-former communications director fizzled into the abyssal dark. He was luminous and ephemeral, and he captured the attention of us all. And perhaps that is exactly what he was meant to do to. For while everyone in this country knows the name Scaramucci, few have probably heard the name John Gore.

Gore recently replaced Tom Wheeler as the head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division after serving as its deputy assistant attorney general since January. To be sure, Wheeler never intended to stay at the Department for long, and most likely, neither does Gore. He is serving as the Division’s interim chief until President Trump’s official nominee for the position, Eric Dreiband, receives congressional approval. But with Congress out of session until September, and with Dreiband yet to secure a confirmation hearing, we can expect Gore to retain his post for at least a little while.

While few might recognize Gore’s name, his appointment should leave us concerned, as it further indicates the federal government’s changing position on the question of civil rights. At the Justice Department, this realignment is exemplified in a host of developments post-inauguration. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has pursued the Administration’s agenda at an aggressive pace: rolling out a budget with outsize focus on immigration enforcement and rolling back Obama-era policies on LGBT rights, voting rights, criminal justice, and police reform.

To his credit, Tom Wheeler prioritized the fight against hate crimes during his time at the Civil Rights Division. In the last six months, the Justice Department has prosecuted a number of bias-motivated offenses, including the indictment of a man who fatally shot one Indian immigrant and wounded two others after yelling “get out of my country” at a bar in Olathe, KS, and the sentencing of a man who fatally assaulted another on account of his sexual orientation in southwest Idaho. Verbal threats of violence have also been processed as hate crimes. In June, a man was indicted for obstructing the free exercise of religious belief after leaving a threatening voicemail at a mosque near Miami, FL. 

Despite continued enforcement under Wheeler, however, the general arc of the Justice Department has bent toward regression. And with Wheeler now out, both his interim replacement and probable successor provide little assurance that the Civil Rights Division will remain a holdout against burgeoning injustice.

We will begin with Gore, a former attorney at the law firm Jones Day who has made a career of defending redistricting plans charged with racial gerrymandering in violation of the Equal Protection Clause and the Voting Rights Act. As the head of the Civil Rights Division, Gore will be tasked with defending the same protections that as a lawyer he fought in court, thus setting a worrying precedent for the Division’s approach to ongoing and future cases. Indeed, as deputy assistant attorney general, Gore was instrumental in the Justice Department’s partial reversal on a Texas voter identification law that federal courts ruled discriminated against Blacks and Latinos. 

Gore has also been charged with defending North Carolina’s HB2 law, which required that transgender people use the bathroom corresponding to the sex listed on their birth certificates. That allegation, however, is slightly misleading. Gore did not defend the law itself. Rather, he represented the University of North Carolina, which was a defendant in a lawsuit brought by LGBT groups and the Obama Administration about the law. According to UNC, the school had not enforced HB2 and therefore should have been removed from the lawsuit. Regardless, this clarification should not diminish the concerns of LGBT advocates, as numerous developments at the Justice Department and elsewhere point to federal roll back on civil rights protections related to sexual orientation and gender identity.

The length of Gore’s tenure as the head of the Civil Rights Division is contingent upon the confirmation of Trump nominee Eric Dreiband, who, like Gore, is a former attorney at Jones Day. Unlike Gore, Dreiband has prior government experience in the litigation of civil rights-related cases. He served as general counsel to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission under President George W. Bush, where he was responsible for enforcing a series of federal laws prohibiting workplace discrimination. As a private attorney, however, he has worked largely on the opposing end of the issue, defending corporations in employment discrimination lawsuits and advocating for weaker anti-discrimination policies in the workplace. In 2015, Dreiband represented Abercrombie & Fitch in a Title VII lawsuit brought by the EEOC, after the company refused to hire a seventeen-year-old Muslim woman because she wore the hijab. Citing this case and others, leading civil rights advocates have declared Dreiband “woefully unqualified” to lead the Division. 

President Trump continues to animate the political conversation and derail the media narrative. Meanwhile, the Trump Administration continues to wage a ground assault on civil rights. Amidst the fireworks—the scandals, the tweets, and incessant reshuffling—the White House has managed to make real progress in pursuit of its agenda. A recent story in the New York Times suggests a federal shift on the issue of affirmative action. The Justice Department has pushed back on claims that it plans to investigate and sue universities over admissions policies that discriminate against white applicants, stating an internal document circulating the media referred to a single case, and one brought by a coalition of Asian American applicants. The Times stands by its reporting. 

Either way, the ensuing debate is sure to prove contentious, threatening to drive a wedge between communities and alienate people of color. Then again, with a news cycle subject to the whims of the White House, it is hard to say any given week where the prevailing conversation will trend—our attention is often diverted toward the sensational and away from what’s important.  

We are rarely deprived of spectacle under this Administration. While it is no doubt entertaining, perhaps we should focus less on the fireworks and keep our eyes on the ground, lest creeping injustice pass unnoticed in the dark of night.

Kai Wiggins is a summer 2017 summer intern at the Arab American Institute.