Thomas E. Perez, assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Division at the Department of Justice, urged Harvard Law School students to pursue careers in public service, pointing to his own work in civil rights over the past year.
Speaking to a crowd of 40 students in Austin Hall yesterday, Perez, who graduated from Harvard Law in 1987, stressed the government’s role in enforcing civil rights legislation.
Perez opened the talk, sponsored by the school’s Office of Public Interest Advising, by challenging the notion that America has moved beyond the civil rights problems of the past.
“I wish we had entered a post-racial America,” Perez said. “I wish we could shut down the Civil Rights Division and put up a big ‘Mission Accomplished’ sign.”
Perez pointed to recent cases his division has handled, including attacks on African Americans on the night of the 2008 presidential election and schools’ refusal to address the bullying of gay students.
In what some attendees said was one of Perez’ most interesting examples of his division’s work, Perez addressed the Arizona immigration law that the Department of Justice successfully blocked earlier this year.
“Under federal law, there is only one quarterback in immigration law,” said Perez, explaining the government’s argument against it.
Assistant Dean for Public Service Alexa Shabecoff said she was pleased with the discussion’s broader message.
“Sometimes students think there aren’t many issues left to work on. This reminded them of everything that’s left,” she said.
The attorney, who has spent his entire career as a public servant, said while the financial compensation in the public sector is not as appealing as in the private sector, he has never had a job he did not love.
To close, Perez assigned homework for his attendees: write obituaries to identify what they would want their legacies to be.
“What do you think your purpose on this planet is?” asked Perez, challenging students to choose a career in public service.
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