By G. Michael Dobbs
SPRINGFIELD – While noting the advances in civil rights 50 years after the signing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz said there is still work to be done.
Ortiz was one of the many speakers at the 2014 Northeast Regional Fair Housing and Civil Rights Conference conducted on April 10 and 11. Other speakers included long-time civil rights activist Dick Gregory, Equal Opportunity Commission Chair Jacqueline Berrien and Jamie Williamson of the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD).
In introducing Ortiz, Williamson noted that she is the first Latina to represent Massachusetts as its U.S. Attorney and the first woman as well. She is currently leading the government’s case against accused Boston Marathon Bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.
Ortiz said, “In the past 50 years this country has come a long way.” He added, though that civil rights is “more than legal code.”
Changes in American culture are still required and Ortiz said, “There is much that remains to be done.”
She noted the activities of the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice have been “tremendously aggressive” during the Obama administration. While the traditional concept of civil rights is the “the cornerstone” for enforcement, Ortiz said the definition of civil rights has broadened.
Ortiz spoke of instances in Mississippi in which African American students were disciplined at a higher number in school than white students and recounted how one African-American student was actually arrested for wearing the wrong color socks to school while another one was maced because his shirt was not tucked in.
Discrimination in school can lead to “long term negative effects.”
Bullying and harassment in schools is also a subject pursued by federal prosecutors, she added.
Ortiz said the rights of disabled people also fall under civil rights and explained how the Department of Justice protects them. She noted how tax preparer H & R Block had violated the American with Disabilities Act by failing to make its website accessible and have entered into a consent decree.
She said the goal was not to give some people “special treatment, but rather “put everyone at equal footing.”
Human trafficking is also seen as a civil rights issue and Ortiz called it a “crack in the foundation of this country.”
She added, “[Human trafficking] leaves most of its victims in desperate situations.”
The sentences of convicted criminals are also a civil rights issue with longer sentences given to African American and Latino offenders than those issued to white defendants, especially in cases involving crack cocaine and cocaine.
“It’s disgraceful for a country that prides itself on a great legal traditions,” she said.
“We must be mindful of the work that is incomplete,” Ortiz said.
The Massachusetts Fair Housing Center, MCAD and HAP Housing convened the conference.