Obama picks PIO as head of US civil rights department

WASHINGTON (TIP): When she was barely into her mid-20s and just couple years out of law school (NYU), Vanita Gupta represented 46 African- Americans who had been convicted by an all-white jury in Texas in 2003 on drug dealing charges. In that unheralded case from Tulia, a small desert town in West Texas, the young Indian-American lawyer won their release after showing that the undercover white agent who filed the charges was utterly incompetent, and possibly racist.

The prosecution was forced to admit it had made a terrible mistake, and the 46 accused were not only released after four years of incarceration, but Gupta also won them a $ 5 million settlement by which time the case was being reported nationwide. She celebrated her win by putting up a sticker on her door from the town’s chamber of commerce that read, ”Hallelujah, I’m from Tulia.” Residents of the town thanked her with a plaque for ”doing justice, loving mercy and walking humbly in Tulia, Texas.” Media reports at that time even spoke of her landing up one day in the nation’s Supreme Court, a projection that had her laughing — she has only just passed the New York bar.

More fabulous legal victories down the line, including a case that resulted in improving the condition of immigrant children and their families in detention centers, only strengthened the expectation that she was destined for greater things. It came as no surprise therefore that President Obama this week decided to nominate Vanita Gupta, now 39, to head the civil rights division of the Justice Department, a high-profile job that will throw her into the middle of volatile issues such as the shooting of young black men in Ferguson and other places, and into the ferment about African-Americans being disenfranchised. She will formally be known as the Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights when she is confirmed.

But the nomination, coming on the heels of fervid speculation that the top job of Attorney General could go to Preet Bharara or Kamala Harris, is a vivid demonstration of the strides Indian-Americans have made in public life in the United States. Civil rights, including racism, discrimination, disenfranchisement, are areas that Gupta has expertly navigated in her stellar 15-year career that got a rousing start in Tulia, Texas.

She has challenged racial disparities in high school graduation rates in Florida and fought for passports to Mexican Americans born to midwives in southern border states. Although she was born in the City of Brotherly Love (Philadelphia), in one interview she attributed her sensitivity to racial issues to what she herself went through while eating with her Indian family, including a grandmother who was visiting from India, at a restaurant.

Gupta’s choice is seen as a particularly skilled one by President Obama because she has the reputation as a consensus builder and unifier who works well on both sides of the political rift in a town that is often bitterly divided. Even the National Rifle Association, which shot down Obama’s nomination of Indian- American Vivek Murthy as Surgeon General, welcomed her appointment. ”Vanita is a very good person,” NRA’s David Keene told the Washington Post, which first reported the story of her nomination. ”Most of the Obama administration people have been so ideologically driven that they won’t talk to people who disagree with them.

Vanita is someone who works with everyone. She both listens to and works with people from all perspectives to accomplish real good.”

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