In one of Vanita Gupta’s earliest memories, she is in a McDonald’s in England with her family, being harassed by a group of skinheads. “They were throwing french fries at us and yelling, ‘Go home, Pakis,’” recalls Gupta, whose parents emigrated from India to the United States and then, when she was four, to England. “There was a series of incidents like that that made me acutely aware that my family was always going to be seen as an outsider in a certain way.”
In the four decades since, Gupta has built a career fighting racism and injustice — at the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, the ACLU and then the Department of Justice, where she started working just a few weeks after Michael Brown was killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. As head of the DOJ’s civil rights division, she oversaw some of the Obama administration’s most significant policing and voting-rights reforms, such as consent decrees with more than two-dozen police departments, including Ferguson, Baltimore and Chicago.
“There were so many times when I was at the Justice Department where I would walk into a police union meeting and it would be, you know, 200 men and me,” she says. “It forced me to really own my own power and confidence.”
Now, as the first woman to helm the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights — a coalition of 200 of the nation’s most prominent civil and human rights organizations — Gupta is leading the effort to guard those reforms from the Trump administration, which has spent the past two years not only rolling back Gupta’s work but undermining civil rights writ large: amping up the pursuit of undocumented immigrants, dialing back oversight of police departments and weakening voting-rights enforcement.
“For the entire time that I have been in this job, Washington has been a dismal place,” Gupta tells me. But things have been looking brighter since the new Democratic House was sworn in. The Leadership Conference helped craft parts of H.R.1, the first bill of the new Congress, an ambitious package of anti-corruption, pro-democracy reforms. “We have gone pretty deep into focusing on the erosion of our democratic institutions, because everything else that we care about — from immigrant rights to criminal justice reform to educational equity — we can’t even begin to address them when our voting rights are under attack, when the census is under attack, which determines how political representation happens,” Gupta says.
Gupta’s commitment to criminal-justice reform developed in the 1990s while she was working on youth-violence prevention in Boston. Hysteria over the drug war was near its apex, and “there really was this narrative around black youth as ‘super predators,’” she recalls. In Boston courthouses, Gupta witnessed a “sea of black and brown kids who were facing really serious sentences that would determine the rest of their lives.”
It seemed like no one was paying attention. So Gupta went to NYU law school and then to work for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, earning national attention with a case she took just weeks into the job: an effort to overturn the convictions of dozens of black defendants who’d been arrested in a drug sting in Tulia, Texas, on the basis of testimony from a corrupt undercover cop. In 2003, all 35 defendants got full pardons — a huge victory that put a media spotlight on racial bias in the justice system.
Still, Gupta knew this one win “wasn’t changing laws and reversing the tide of mass incarceration.” So she joined the ACLU to work on criminal justice policy. In 2014, she was stunned when she got a call from the office of then-Attorney General Eric Holder about heading up the civil rights division. “I had spent my whole life suing the government, so I never thought that anyone in the government would put me in that position,” she says.
In a sense, Gupta has now returned to her roots as an outside agitator — she describes the Leadership Conference as “a strategic hub of the resistance” — strategizing, coordinating and mobilizing responses to the Trump administration’s actions. “We are fighting like hell to protect vulnerable communities,” she says, “and to make sure that we’re a country as good as our ideals.”