Trailblazing Civil Rights Attorney Vanita Gupta Narrowly Confirmed as Associate Attorney General
Vanita Gupta was narrowly confirmed as Associate Attorney General April 21, on a 51-49 Senate vote. The veteran Indian American civil rights activist formerly served as head of the civil rights division at the Justice Department in the Obama Administration. “We did a lot of work to make sure that the most marginalized people had a voice, and making America a place of justice for all,” Gupta told India-West in a 2017 interview. (Tom Williams/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)
By SUNITA SOHRABJI/India-West Staff Reporter
Indian American activist Vanita Gupta, who headed up the civil rights division of the Justice Department in the Obama administration, was narrowly confirmed as Associate Attorney General April 21, on a 51-49 Senate vote.
Gupta is currently president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. She will be the first Indian American to serve in this role, the third highest position at the Justice Department.
President Joe Biden in a tweet April 21 said: “Congratulations to Vanita Gupta on making history as the first woman of color to serve as Associate Attorney General.” He characterized her as an “eminently qualified, highly respected lawyer” who is “dedicated to advancing racial equity and justice.”
During her tenure as head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division in the Obama administration, Gupta broke new ground on several occasions, championing the rights of gays, lesbians and transgender people, among other minorities. In a landmark move in 2016, Gupta sent a letter to every public school in the country, telling them to allow transgender students to use bathrooms that conformed with their gender identity. Gupta’s sister had come out as a lesbian while in college.
Under Gupta’s leadership, the civil rights division also opened up investigations into local law enforcement agencies accused of using excessive force, discriminatory policing, and unlawful stops and arrests.
Under her leadership, the division also prosecuted hate crimes and human trafficking, promoted disability rights, and worked to combat discrimination in education, housing, and employment, among other issues.
“We did a lot of work to make sure that the most marginalized people had a voice, and making America a place of justice for all,” Gupta told India-West in a 2017 interview. She lambasted former President Donald Trump and former Attorney General Jeff Sessions for rolling back the progress the civil rights division had made during her tenure. (See India-West story here: https://bit.ly/2QNt3uN)
Gupta earlier underwent a tough confirmation hearing in which Republican senators accused her of bipartisanship, pulling up old tweets. In 2020, Gupta tweeted during the Republican convention: “Don’t know if I can take three more nights of racism, xenophobia, and outrageous lies.” She also chastised Republican Senator Susan Collins of Maine for voting to confirm Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who had been accused of sexual assault.
“Senator Collins is failing her constituents and sending a dangerous message to survivors. This is excruciating,” said Gupta in a tweet that can still be viewed in her Twitter feed.
Prior to the confirmation vote, senators on both sides of the aisle weighed in on Gupta. Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, said it was auspicious that Gupta’s vote came the day after a jury found former Minnesota police officer Derek Chauvin guilty of murdering George Floyd by placing his knee on the Black man’s neck for over nine minutes.
“The reason I bring that up in light of the nomination of Vanita Gupta is the fact that the path to civil rights progress in America is often difficult and for those who try to lead often a lonely battle.
“Anybody who’s turned on the news in the past week sees that we need police reform, we need to repair the relationship between law enforcement and the communities they serve. Vanita Gupta has a proven track record of doing just that,” said Durbin, noting that she has brought together civil rights advocates, community leaders, and police law enforcement.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, said: “Ms. Gupta has spent her career in large part as an activist for left-wing causes. Her work for high profile liberal interest groups and the Obama Justice Department have left a record of astoundingly radical positions.”
McConnell noted that Gupta had previously supported decriminalizing all drugs, and de-funding police. “The White House needs to make a better choice for this key post,” he said.
Sen. Cory Booker lauded Gupta, calling her a “patriot,” and noting she had received support from several law enforcement groups. “She is an honest broker, a fair actor, who pursues justice. She is not some radical partisan. She has a heart and a compassion for human beings that, to me, inspires my actions.”
“When a woman stands up and is strong and defiantly dedicated to ideals that are not made real in reality, they are attacked again and again and again. And then, God bless America, there’s something about women of color that seems to really get them outrageous attacks,” said Booker, characterizing Gupta as a friend who inspires his own work.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska was the lone Republican to vote for Gupta.
“I have looked at her record. I have had an extensive sit-down with her. I’m impressed with not only her professional credentials, and the passion that she carries with her with the work that she performs.”
“There are some statements that she has made in some other areas that, in fairness, I find troubling and concerning. But I am going to give the benefit of the doubt to a woman who I believe has demonstrated through her professional career to be deeply, deeply committed to matters of justice,” said Murkowski.
Several civil rights organizations lauded Gupta’s confirmation. Neil Makhija, executive director of the Indian American Impact Fund, said in a statement: “We are deeply proud of Vanita Gupta, knowing that she will be a stalwart champion for all Americans and in particular communities that have been marginalized. At a time when we see assaults on our voting rights and a rise in hate crimes, our country needs a champion for civil rights like Vanita Gupta at the highest levels of the Justice Department.”
The National Asian Pacific American Bar Association also congratulated Gupta. “Her tenure could not have come at a more pivotal time for so many populations of color and vulnerable people, especially as we face an onslaught of anti-Asian hate crimes and bias-motivated attacks against our communities,” said A. B. Cruz III, president of NAPABA.
Gupta was born in Philadelphia, and grew up in England and France before returning to the U.S. She received her BA from Yale and her JD from NYU.