President-Elect Joe Biden’s pick to be associate attorney general, Vanita Gupta, has recalled her experience of racial bigotry as a four-year-old.
Speaking on Thursday after Biden introduced her as “one of the most respected civil rights lawyers in America,” Gupta spoke of her parents as “proud immigrants from India.”
She spoke of the family’s experience of bias, “an early memory but one that is seared in my mind.”
“One day, I was sitting in a McDonald’s restaurant with my sister, mother, and grandmother. As we ate our meals, a group of skinheads at the next table began shouting ethnic slurs and throwing food at us until we had to leave the restaurant,” she said.
“That feeling never left me — of what it means to be made to feel unsafe because of who you are,” said Gupta, who went on to a brilliant career as a fighter for civil rights.
She came to national attention when as a newly minted lawyer she won the release of 38 people, most of them African Americans, who had been wrongly convicted by all-white juries on drug charges in a Texas town.
She also got the victims $6 million in compensation.
She was then working for the Legal Defense Fund of the NAACP (National Association of Colored People) and went on to work for the American Civil Liberties Union and the justice department protecting the rights of immigrants and the underprivileged.
Gupta now heads the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, a coalition of more than 200 human rights organizations.
But alongside the experience of bigotry, Gupta said she also learnt the lesson of the promise of America.
“I kept another feeling with me, though, too one ingrained in me by my parents and shared by my husband [Chinh Q Le], whose family fled violence and war in Vietnam and sought refuge on these shores,” she said.
“They believed more than anything in the promise of America and that loving this country brings with it the obligation to do the necessary work to make it better.”
When she takes up her new job at the justice department, Gupta said: “Those two feelings converge in the work ahead of us.”
Gupta, who had served as the principal deputy assistant attorney general and head of the Civil Rights Division in President Barack Obama’s administration, will have to be confirmed by the US Senate in her new post, which should be easy because the Democratic Party controls it.
While introducing her, Biden said: “At every step, with every case, she has fought for greater equity and to right the wrongs in our justice system where they existed.”
Gupta promised an activist role for the Justice Department, which will be headed by Merrick Garland, an appellate court judge whose nomination for the Supreme Court by Obama had been scuttled by the Republican-controlled Senate.
Gupta said: “The Department of Justice, as it has done throughout history, will have to uncover and reckon with hard truths; hold people, companies, and institutions accountable to our Constitution and laws; drive change where there is injustice; and heal a nation starving for decency and hope.
“Now is the time to ensure our economic system works for everyone, to protect the health and safety of the American people, and to harness all DOJ levers for civil rights, justice reform, and climate justice.”
Several Indian Americans have been appointed to important posts by Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris.
They include Neera Tanden, who will be the director of the Office of Management and Budget, and Vivek Murthy, the Surgeon General, both of whom will have to be confirmed in their positions by the Senate.
Vedant Patel is to be Biden’s assistant press secretary, Vinay Reddy to be the director of speech-writing and Gautam Raghavan to be the deputy director of the Office of Presidential Personnel.
Others include Atul Gawande and Celine Gounder on the Covid-19 task force, Mala Adiga to be the policy director for First Lady Jill Biden, and Maju Varghese to be the executive director of their inauguration.