TOPICS > Politics

A Conversation With Deval Patrick

January 10, 1997 at 12:00 AM EST
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ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: As the nation’s top civil rights enforcer since March 1994, Deval Patrick has overseen the work of 250 Justice Department lawyers. They’re responsible for enforcing federal statutes and executive orders that prohibit unlawful discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender, or disability. Patrick grew up in a poor and segregated neighborhood on Chicago’s South side. He graduated from the Milton Academy in Massachusetts after a seventh grade teacher recommended him for a scholarship. And he got a BA and law degree at Harvard. He came to the Justice Department from a Boston law firm and will return to that city upon leaving Washington. Thanks for being with us.

DEVAL PATRICK, Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights: I’m glad to be here, Elizabeth. Thank you.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Affirmative action has been the–I don’t need to tell you–the big–one of the big issues in this–in this two year period, three year period.

DEVAL PATRICK: It has.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: How do you explain the moves in California and elsewhere to get rid of affirmative action?

DEVAL PATRICK: Well, I think that affirmative action is one of those issues that suffers from the very poor quality of public discourse. I think it is a widely misunderstood device, both in terms of its operation and its purpose. There is a right way and a wrong way to do affirmative action.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: I’m sorry to interrupt you, but what do you mean misunderstood? You mean some people think of it as quotas, and it’s not quotas?

DEVAL PATRICK: I think that there is no one in this administration, from the President on down, who supports quotas, and the courts have said repeatedly that affirmative action can be done and in some circumstances must be done without resort to quotas. It is not meant to sacrifice quality or merit. All it is meant to do is make opportunities available to talent from all American communities.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You’re credited with crafting the administration’s “mend it, don’t end it” approach to affirmative action. What needed to be mended?

DEVAL PATRICK: Well, I think as in any program with good intentions, sometimes are not–or particular means of using affirmative action principles are not–are subverted, if you will, are not functioning very well. And I think that in a couple of cases, there was one in particular at the Department of Defense where there was much, much more limitation placed on the program than we thought was proper either as a matter of law, or as a matter of good conscience and good management. And so we ended that program. We have filed lawsuits attacking what we believe were unlawful affirmative action plans in other context. But we do believe that affirmative action can be done a right way; that on the whole it has been done the right way. There is a very, very light touch taken to, to these kinds of plans in the federal system. And, as I said, I’m proud of the President and the attorney general’s continued support of the principles.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And you said that you think it’s still necessary. I assume that’s because we don’t have a colorblind society.

DEVAL PATRICK: I think it is–it is a complete ruse to suggest that declaring ourselves colorblind in law is going to cause us to be colorblind in fact. I think that there will come a day as long as we remind ourselves of fundamental American values, of equality, opportunity and fair play, when we will set aside the kind of negative attention that the differences in this country sometimes–sometimes bring. But we are not there yet. And in order for us to be there, it seems to me we are going to have to find ways to come together across all kinds of differences, and reconcile those differences, and, indeed, learn to respect them. And affirmative action is one kind of device that enables that in practical ways to happen.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Do you still find–even with your eminent position–that you face discrimination, for example?

DEVAL PATRICK: Oh, sure. I think it is not, you know, as rank in every circumstances in mine, although I do get a good deal of fairly–I shouldn’t say a good deal–I do get some fairly threatening mail. I can remember one occasion when I came out of a meeting with the President of the United States on to Pennsylvania Avenue, when the traffic was still open there, and couldn’t get a taxi to stop for me. Taxis would roll by me and pick up others in suits who didn’t look like–didn’t look like me. And you can imagine how that irony–how powerful that irony can–can be. But I think at the same time it’s important to recognize–and I’ve said this over and over again–that we have made profound progress in this country over the last thirty or forty years. That has to be respected and celebrated. It is a thing worth celebrating. And I think at the same time that we have a good ways to go, and we have to remain true to those commitments.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Just briefly, on Proposition 209, the California civil rights initiative that would bar state-sponsored discrimination on the basis of gender or race, why do you–the Clinton administration has indicated that it may join the lawsuit or the effort to declare this unconstitutional. Why is it unconstitutional in your eyes?

DEVAL PATRICK: Well, there is a fairly clear Supreme Court precedent on this case that, that after analysis indicates that Proposition 209 is as a legal matter unconstitutional under the Equal Protection Clause. Apart from its legality, 209 is a fraud. It is only about ending state-sponsored affirmative action in a–by an official who has himself supported affirmative action through much of his public career and in a state where there is wide diversity of racial and ethnic background and where the success of California, indeed–

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Who’s the official you’re talking about?

DEVAL PATRICK: The official is Gov. Wilson.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Oh.

DEVAL PATRICK: And that is a state like this country, where our success as an American democracy is going to depend on our ability to come together around common civic values, and to set aside our preoccupation with some of the differences between us. We are not going to learn to do that by balkanizing ourselves into separate groups. We are going to have to have ways, both in terms of public and private programs, and also in terms of the ways that adults talk to children across the kitchen table and neighbors talk to each other to find our–to find common ground. And I have been particularly proud of this President in terms of his emphasis on those values in his first administration, and I fully expect him to continue that in his second term.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You faced a lot of other challenges in this two years, in these two years. What are you most proud of?

DEVAL PATRICK: Well, I think we have made a tremendous amount of progress in the area of fair lending. We have had a number of very carefully targeted cases, all but one of which have resulted in agreed resolutions.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And what were the problems you’re addressing with those cases?

DEVAL PATRICK: There were a couple of different kinds. One was underwriting discrimination, that is, differences in judgments among comparably qualified individuals that seemed to be based entirely on race or ethnic background, in some cases on gender differences as well, in one case on age. In other cases we saw people with comparable credit backgrounds and credit histories being charged dramatically different rates for the same lending product, and the lending industry itself, in fact, attributes to the attention that this administration has given these issues the last couple of years a record level of lending to African-American and Hispanic-American borrowers. So that has been, I think, terrific. We’ve made a tremendous amount of progress on the church arsons crisis with somewhere around 140 arrests since the national church arsons task force was formed in June. We have a number of active investigations still open. In fact, this the largest civil rights investigation going on right now, and one of the two or three largest investigations of any kind underway in the federal government. I’m very, very proud of how well organized that has been.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And what’s your conclusion at this point? How much of that is racially motivated?

DEVAL PATRICK: Much of it, not all of it. It is–it’s not over either, so I think that I and others have been right to be reluctant to draw broad conclusions, but it’s clear that hatred is driving many of the fires. Religious hostility is driving some of the fires as well. It is–it is upsetting, frankly, how many of the fires are the responsibility of young people, or juveniles.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Just being–just being wild young people?

DEVAL PATRICK: Sometimes being wild young people, sometimes being hateful young people, but the fact, frankly, whether young or old, that the special sanctuary of a house of worship would be violated in this–in this way is an indication, I think, of a very, very serious problem that warranted the kind of attention that the President and the Vice President and the attorney general brought to it.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And finally, what happens? What do you do next?

DEVAL PATRICK: Well, I’m looking for a job right now. My principal interest is to find more time with my wife and my children. I’ve two daughters who are seven and eleven. I want to know them, and I want to have them know me. I’ll be back in Boston I’m sure in some form of private practice and trying to keep my hands in other, in other interests as well.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Well, good luck to you and thank you very much for being with us.

DEVAL PATRICK: Thank you, Elizabeth.