Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
The federal agency is looking into the closing of more than 30 DMV offices to determine whether there’s a discriminatory effect on African Americans seeking licenses.
When Alabama elected to close more than 30 locations where drivers license services were offered, most of them in predominantly African-American counties, it sounded alarms in the civil rights community. There was genuine concern about how the closings would affect black people in these mostly rural counties, given that you now need a state-issued photo ID to vote in Alabama, and a drivers license generally serves that purpose.
But another problem with the closings is that it has reduced opportunities for African Americans in these areas—some of the poorest counties in the state—to get the licenses they need to drive to jobs, schools and other locations. Which is why the U.S. Department of Transportation has decided to step in to investigate to determine if the closings constitute a violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act and possible discrimination against African Americans.
Under Title VI, no entity that receives federal funding for transportation-related projects can institute polices that discriminate based on race. The Transportation Department said in a press release that Alabama receives “substantial Federal assistance,” and if discrimination is found some of that funding, for highways, bridges and other travel infrastructure, could be forfeited.
And while some have called for the U.S. Department of Justice to get involved because of the voter-ID implications of the closings, DOT sounds like it is invested in investigating this as a transportation problem.
“Our concern rests in the possibility that the state’s closure of driver license offices disproportionately constrains the ability of some residents to secure driving privileges, register personal and commercial vehicles, and obtain proper identification—a critical requirement for access to essential activities such as opening a bank account and voting,” said DOT’s acting civil rights director Stephanie Jones in a press release.
Alabama Governor Robert Bentley was none too pleased with the announcement, and said in his own statement to the public:
This USDOT investigation is nothing more than a weak attempt to embarrass the people of Alabama and exploit our state in the name of a political agenda. I am confident that the USDOT investigation will find no basis for the claims of discrimination.
The announcement comes on the heels of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF) filing a lawsuit against Alabama over the state’s photo-ID voting law. NAACP LDF attorneys have been meeting with Alabama officials over the past two years about dismantling the law, pointing to data that suggest it would be overly burdensome to African Americans. The civil rights team also sent a letter to Alabama Governor Robert Bentley in October dressing him down over the DMV closings, which attorneys there said would make photo-ID voting qualifications even more difficult to comply with.
Meanwhile, DOT’s involvement is a reminder that the Justice Department is not the only federal entity with the power to enforce Civil Rights Act provisions. The Transportation Department has taken on a number of Title VI cases over the years, perhaps more so than any other federal department outside of the DOJ. DOT Secretary Anthony Foxx said in a press release that enforcement of this civil rights law is “not optional,” although the federal government has a shoddy record of bringing lawsuits under it.
If ever there was a state to revive civil rights enforcement, though, it’s gotta be Alabama.