by Steve Manning '96
Ralph Boyd already faced a daunting task when he went to a town meeting in Dearborn, Mich., to try to convince a crowd of skeptical and wary Arab Americans that the Justice Department didn’t think they were all potential terrorists.
It was only weeks after Sept. 11, when many Arab Americans were both worried about violent backlash and anxious the government that should protect them was instead turning against them in its zeal to root out terrorism. But just a day before Boyd traveled to Dearborn, Attorney General John Ashcroft stated that the government planned to question 5,000 men from mostly Middle Eastern countries. The crowd from the large Arab American Dearborn community, where many of those interviewees live, smelled racial profiling.
Boyd, an assistant attorney general and head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, took the stage first in front of about 300 people and a large contingent of national media. He meant to speak for just about 20 minutes; he ended up taking questions from the crowd for three hours.
He carefully laid out his case, saying the department was limiting its probe to men between 18 and 32 years old who came into the country after January 2001 on nonresident visas from countries where al Qaeda was active. Those factors taken together meant those men were more likely than others to have information that could be valuable to investigators. Participation was voluntary, he said, and didn’t mean the government thought the men were terrorists.
But just because the questioning made people uncomfortable wasn’t grounds for any special treatment, he said. If people didn’t want to talk, they could say no, but the department wasn’t going to give any group amnesty from inquiry.
“One of the things I said to them was when you live in a free society, sometimes you are called upon to help out,” Boyd says, recalling the meeting. “We didn’t think given the magnitude of what had happened that it was so much for someone to endure to have a law enforcement officer come up and ask some questions.”
Through that approach, he was able to negotiate the best way to conduct the interviews. Boyd agreed to have most of the inquiries done in the homes of community leaders, not FBI field offices. The FBI agents conducting the interviews were also given training about Islam and Ramadan.
In the end, the dialogue was able to erode some of the hostility and mistrust, Boyd says.
“People felt a lot better about it,” he says. “If it were up to them, they still would not have us do it, but they understood why we were doing it.”
It’s that type of highly charged atmosphere that Boyd often wades into as head of the Justice Department branch that enforces the nation’s civil rights laws. Whether it is negotiating settlements in racial profiling cases, sorting out allegations of police brutality, or prosecuting a 40-year-old Ku Klux Klan murder case in Mississippi, Boyd and his staff are frequently immersed in the passion and anger aroused by racial sensitivities.
The job requires strong convictions that the law can right some historical and recent racial injustices. At its core, the division is an arm of law enforcement, Boyd says, using the weight of federal anti-discrimination laws to take on cases that would be hard for local prosecutors to try.
In the Klan murder case, the division resurrected a long cold case to charge a 72-year-old man for the 1966 murder of a black sharecropper, a killing the perpetrator hoped they could use to draw Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to southern Mississippi and into a waiting assassination plot. Boyd also launched a Sept. 11 backlash initiative the day after the terrorists attacks. To handle the spike in racially motivated attacks against Arab Americans, all 56 FBI field offices were ordered to aggressively pursue hate crimes. More than 400 cases were investigated in 31 states in the months after Sept. 11, Boyd says.
It also takes good diplomacy skills, he says, the ability to go into a tense situation and defuse it as best as possible. That could mean meeting with police union officials and rank-and-file officers to convince them that investigations of police departments are meant to restore public trust and root out bad practices and officers, not veiled efforts to paint an entire department as racist or abusive.
But there are times when people must be told the hard truth, like in the Dearborn town meeting, no matter if it offends them or threatens them, Boyd says. Coddling people only avoids dealing with problems.
“It requires going into places that aren’t necessarily home games and trying to reach people, persuade them, and, in some cases, give them comfort, but not to pander to them, to tell them the truth and give them sometimes things they don’t want to hear but need to hear,” he says.
Boyd grew up in a politically active family in Schenectady, N.Y. His parents, a General Electric factory worker and a library aide, were involved in community action groups and co-founded the first branch of the NAACP in the city. He went to a large public high school, one with a big “jock culture,” he says. Boyd hadn’t heard of Haverford until his mother thrust some college brochures in front of him that had come in the mail. He was immediately drawn to the academic rigor of Haverford and the commitment of students to ideas and causes larger than themselves. To his surprise, he was admitted.
He found Haverford to be a sharp contrast to his Schenectady background. Many students came from affluent families, and the College was much smaller and less geared toward athletics than his high school. But he quickly adapted, majoring in political science and playing lacrosse on a team that posted a winning record each of his four years. He also joined the black students league, a group that at the time prodded the College to hire more minority professors and admit more minority students. There were occasional sit-ins, public discussions, and periodic “silent confrontations to emphasize the point,” he says.
Boyd readily admits he was a product of affirmative action at Haverford, one of what he called former Admission Director Bill Ambler’s “projects.” But Haverford’s version was much different than the University of Michigan’s recently challenged affirmative action policy, he said. It’s an issue Boyd has been called on to discuss a lot lately because of President Bush’s decision to file a brief with the Supreme Court opposing the Michigan policy.
Michigan’s admissions process is flawed by its formula-driven approach to race, Boyd says. The policy assigns up to 150 points to prospective students, for achievements such as academic performance and extracurricular activities. Minority students, however, are automatically awarded 20 points because of their race. That practice ignores the individual, Boyd argues, calling it no more than a rigid, mechanistic, racial preference. The affirmative action Boyd says he benefited from looked at the candidate as a whole, considering a student’s academic experience, credentials, and talents together instead of as different parts of a formula.
“What Haverford did was an individualized review of each candidate and looked at the whole package,” he explains. “At the University of Michigan, you get 20 points for just walking in the door.”
Boyd got a close look at Haverford’s policy while working in the Haverford admission office for a year after graduation. He went on to Harvard Law School and later took a job with the U.S. Attorney’s office in Boston. There he worked on a program called “Operation Triggerlock,” one of the first efforts to use the federal government’s tougher gun laws to prosecute what normally would be state cases, like gang violence. Coupled with the aggressive prosecution was a community outreach that enrolled teens at risk for drugs and gangs in job training and academic programs. Boyd says Operation Triggerlock was a success, with homicides in Boston dropping from around 160 in 1990 when the program began to about 30 by the time he left for private practice in 1997.
In 2001, Boyd was approached by the Bush administration for a possible position in the Justice Department. After meeting with White House officials he was nominated as assistant attorney general in April 2001 and was confirmed three months later.
The civil rights division has nine litigation sections, and enforces a broad range of federal laws. Division attorneys monitor desegregation orders in roughly 400 school districts nationwide, file lawsuits in employment discrimination cases, investigate law enforcement agencies for possible misconduct, and ensure that people in jails, mental institutions, and nursing homes are treated properly. It is also responsible for enforcing voting and fair housing laws. Boyd has approximately 330 attorneys and 420 staff members who work under him.
In his post, Boyd works closely with Attorney General Ashcroft, the public face of the Bush administration’s campaign against terrorism after Sept. 11. A former conservative Senator from Missouri, Ashcroft has become a polarizing figure for many, especially civil libertarians, who argue his drive to root out terrorism goes too far and often ignores constitutional rights and privacy laws. And as with the Dearborn town meeting, the anti-terrorism policies have led some minority groups to mistrust the Justice Department.
While protecting the American public has become Ashcroft’s “obsession” since Sept. 11, he is still a firm believer in civil rights, Boyd says. Not once during Boyd’s two-year tenure has Ashcroft tried to interfere with the division, or pressure Boyd into following an agenda, he said. The attorney general’s seemingly singular focus on terrorism has not made Boyd’s job more difficult, he says.
“The portrayals of the attorney general as being less than enthusiastic about the enforcement of civil liberties couldn’t be farther from the truth,” Boyd says.
Along with his Sept. 11 backlash initiative, Boyd plans to focus on discrimination in housing cases and lending companies. And he expects to be in many more situations akin to the Dearborn meeting, where he is called on to tell people the truth without pandering to them but do it an a way that defuses the passions aroused by discrimination and race.
“It’s hard, not because the two are irreconcilable,” he says. “It’s hard because people feel so strongly about it.”
Steve Manning last wrote for the magazine on covering the D.C. sniper story.