When community leaders wanted justice for the killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, they went knocking on the door of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division. And that's been happening a lot lately.
Over the past three years, the unit has brought record numbers of hate crimes cases, uncovered abuses in local police departments and challenged voting laws in Texas and South Carolina.
"I wish discrimination were a thing of the past," says Thomas Perez, assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Division. "I wish we were living in a post-racial America. I wish my phone were not ringing, but regrettably it's ringing off the hook in the voting context; it's ringing off the hook in the hate crimes context and in so many other contexts."
On the wall of his Justice Department office, Perez has tacked up photos of two of his heroes: Ted Kennedy and Frederick Douglass. He says they help him keep an eye on his mission.
Just last week, Perez announced federal hate crimes charges against three white youths who had been targeting African-American men for sport in Jackson, Miss. Last summer, when those youths came across James Craig Anderson, they beat him and ran over him with a 3-ton pickup truck. They'll face life in prison for Anderson's death when they're sentenced later this year.
"We have come a long way in our journey," says Attorney General Eric Holder. "But we're not at the place yet where we want to be, even though we have an African-American president [and] we have an African-American attorney general. There are still instances that we see — I think painfully see — [of] discrimination."
'The Conscience Of The Justice Department'
Holder points to the record $335 million settlement the Justice Department extracted from the Countrywide Financial mortgage company last December. Countrywide had been accused of steering black and Latino home owners into subprime home loans that carried higher rates and fees.
"The Civil Rights Division I think is the conscience of the Justice Department," Holder says.
But for political conservatives, this unusually active Civil Rights Division represents something else.
"It's a very liberal Civil Rights Division. I think by far the most liberal I've seen," says Roger Clegg, president of the Center for Equal Opportunity, a conservative think tank that follows issues of race and ethnicity.
According to Clegg, this Justice Department is pushing the boundaries of the law when it comes to voting rights and fair lending, and it's not doing enough to prevent racial quotas in school admissions.
J. Christian Adams, a conservative lawyer who quit the department in 2010, has a more pointed critique. He says his political superiors at the Justice Department showed "an unwillingness to enforce the law in a race-neutral fashion."
Adams helped propel a scandal that dogged the Obama Justice Department for two years — namely, the department's decision to narrow charges against members of the New Black Panther Party, a fringe group accused of intimidating Philadelphia voters on Election Day 2008. Their activities were videotaped by a conservative activist and broadcast over and over on Fox.
No white voters came forward to say they felt uncomfortable, but Adams says, "The law also bans the attempt to intimidate and I think anyone who sees the video can see that that was going on."
Perez and the attorney general got grilled on the issue just about every time they testified before Republicans in Congress. But ethics watchdogs at the Justice Department ultimately concluded that the Civil Rights Division had done nothing wrong in the New Black Panther case.
"It was something that had no basis in fact," says Holder. "It was politically motivated and was an unnecessary distraction."
'It's About Expanding Opportunity'
As for Perez, he says he is too busy to linger on those old controversies. Earlier this month, he announced a big settlement with a suburban Minnesota school district to prevent bullying in schools where several kids had committed suicide after facing taunts over their sexual orientation.
He is also gearing up for big legal fights over the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The department has rejected voting laws in Texas and South Carolina, which he says discriminate against blacks and Latinos at the ballot box.
"It's about expanding opportunity, whether it's the opportunity to vote, the opportunity to realize the American dream of homeownership, the opportunity to get a fair education," Perez says. "We're in the opportunity business and I think we've been able to expand opportunity."
Some of those controversial issues — the Voting Rights Act, tests of affirmative action — are destined to end up before the Supreme Court. But Perez says his job is about making sure everybody has a fair shake, something he remembers every time he looks at the pictures hanging on his office wall.
Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.