By BEN JEALOUS
People For the American Way
Black voters who turned out to elect President Joe Biden were hoping for some real change. We’re getting it.
Kristen Clarke is one of the country’s most effective civil rights lawyers. She has tackled issues like police accountability, fair housing, educational and economic opportunity, and the school-to-prison pipeline. And Biden has nominated her to lead civil rights enforcement for the federal government.
That is a big change.
Clarke is president of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, a historic and important civil rights group. She has worked at the U.S. Justice Department and headed the civil rights bureau in the New York Attorney General’s office. She helped expose Trump’s sham Election Integrity Commission, which was designed to create justifications for voter suppression. And she resisted the Trump administration’s efforts to corrupt the 2020 census.
Clarke says she is inspired by Thurgood Marshall, the first Black justice on the U.S. Supreme Court, and Constance Baker Motley, the first Black woman to argue a case at the Supreme Court and the first to serve as a federal judge.
Clarke will be the first Black woman to lead the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. At times in our history, that division has played a powerful role in protecting the constitutional principle of equal justice under law. Under former President Donald Trump, the division became a shell of its former self.
That is changing. When Biden announced the nomination of Clarke and other senior Justice Department officials, he called the Civil Rights Division “the moral center of the Justice Department.”
In her remarks accepting the nomination, Clarke pledged her commitment to the core constitutional principle of equal justice.
“The clarion call of equal justice under law is what binds us together as a nation,” she said. “Now, it’s my honor to return to work alongside the dedicated career professionals who give of themselves every day to make that principle real in the lives of families like mine, in my son’s life, and in the lives of all of our sons and daughters.”
As an experienced civil rights advocate, Clarke knows the forces that she is up against and she is not afraid to challenge them.
In January, she announced that the Lawyers’ Committee was suing the violent, extremist Proud Boys and their members for the racist attack on the historic Metropolitan AME Church after a day of pro-Trump protests in Washington, D.C. in December.
She has called out members of Congress who were promoting the “false and baseless claim that there was something wrong with the 2020 election.”
That kind of truth-telling is not always welcomed in Washington.
You will not be surprised to know that not everyone is celebrating Clarke’s nomination. Not everyone wants a strong civil rights division. Some people were just fine with the Trump administration’s hands-off approach to police accountability and civil rights enforcement. And some of them are trying to smear Clarke and other women of color Biden has appointed to top Justice Department positions.
It is not going to work.
Some Republican senators tried to use the confirmation hearing for attorney general nominee Merrick Garland to attack Clarke. Garland wouldn’t put up with it. When Republican Sen. Mike Lee of Utah made insinuations of anti-Semitism on the part of Clarke, Garland, who is Jewish, cut him off and defended Clarke’s integrity and commitments to equal justice. Garland told senators that he needs Clarke on his leadership team.
At the ceremony announcing her nomination – which came just a day after the deadly insurrection at the Capitol, Clarke said, “We are at a crossroads. If I am fortunate enough to be confirmed, we will turn the page on hate and close the door on discrimination by enforcing our federal civil rights laws.”
Amen. That is a page that needs turning and a door that needs closing! Senators from both sides of the aisle should recognize that Clarke is a brilliant choice for this position. I am confident she will overcome whatever partisan objections are raised against her. And I look forward to watching her get to work.
Ben Jealous, president of People For the American Way and People For the American Way Foundation, has served as a coalition builder, campaigner for social justice and seasoned nonprofit executive. In 2008, was the youngest person to be elected as president and CEO of the NAACP. He was a Rhodes scholar at Columbia University and Oxford and he has taught at Princeton and the University of Pennsylvania.