New Delhi: In another first for the Biden-Harris administration, Vanita Gupta has been nominated as the Associate Attorney General of the US, and if confirmed by the Senate, she will be the first woman of colour to hold the position.
President-incumbent Biden made the announcement late Thursday and called Gupta “one of the most respected civil rights lawyers in America”.
He added: “At every step, with every case, she fought for greater equity and the right to right the wrongs of a justice system where they existed.”
While this is not the first time 45-year-old Gupta will be part of the Justice Department, having served as the head of the civil rights division under the Obama administration, the associate attorney general is the third-highest position in the US Department of Justice.
As mentioned by Biden, Gupta has had a long and illustrious career as a litigator, especially cases relating to civil rights.
After graduating from the New York University Law School, she joined the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Legal Defence & Educational Fund as a legal fellow in 2001.
And it was here, aged 21, Gupta fought a famous case for 46 people, mostly Black, who were arrested on charges of drug trafficking and convicted with extraordinarily long sentences — 300 years, 90 years, 60 years and so on — in a small town in Texas.
Texas drug case & becoming chief civil rights prosecutor of US
According to a Huffington Post report, Gupta found out about the case in Texas’ town Tulia through a documentary.
In 2001, a large drug bust had rounded up most Blacks in the town, which had a population of just 5,000. Of these, 46 were arrested and convicted. The evidence against many of them hinged on an uncorroborated statement by a single man, who was known for using racial slurs.
The case received national attention, with The New York Times calling it “national symbol of racial injustice”, and Gupta was successful in getting most of the defendants pardoned by then Republican Governor Rick Perry. She also helped them secure a $5 million settlement.
Since then, her work in civil rights has soldiered on. In 2006, she joined the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), where she worked on cases regarding children of immigrants and also headed ACLU’s Smart Justice Campaign, which aimed at ending mass incarceration.
According to her former ACLU colleague Steve Shapiro, Gupta “is somebody who is very gifted at finding common ground without sacrificing principle” and someone who understands “the relationship between litigation and other forms of advocacy, and how to leverage both in order to achieve progressive social change”.
Perhaps these qualities led to her appointment in 2014 as the Acting Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division — the chief civil rights prosecutor of the US — by then President Barack Obama.
She served as the chief civil rights prosecutor of the US till 2017 and investigated police departments of Chicago, Baltimore and Ferguson — some of the toughest regions in the country. As Shapiro noted, “She’s had a baptism by fire.”
Prior to being announced as the next Associate Attorney General, Vanita was the president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.
Life as second generation immigrant
Gupta has always been cognisant of her identity as a second generation Indian immigrant. A fact that even Biden highlighted Thursday when he called her a “proud daughter of immigrants from India”.
Born in 1975, she went to Yale University where she graduated magna cum laude and after that received her law degree from New York University in 2001.
Daughter to Rajiv L. Gupta, a businessman, who was the former CEO and chairman of manufacturing company Rohm and Hass, she has talked about how most of her childhood was spent in France and London due to her father’s occupation. Her parents had moved to the US in 1968, just a week after they got married.
Exactly two years after she took on the Tulia case, Vanita got married in 2003 to Chinh Q Lee who currently is the Legal Director of the Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia.
In an earlier interview to The New York Times, Gupta had talked about one particular incident that propelled her towards social justice causes.
She recalled sitting outside a McDonalds outlet in London, with her entire family, and a few men sitting at a table across hurled ethnic slurs at them and asked them to go back to where they came from.
“It was just a very vivid demonstration of what it’s like to grow up as a person of colour in a very troubled time,” said Gupta.
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