Kristen Clarke’s confirmation as the DOJ’s Civil Rights Chief came at the perfect time
Clarke will now be in charge of investigating abuses of police force, and enforcing voting rights laws along with federal bans on discrimination.
On Tuesday, May 25, the Senate narrowly confirmed Kristen Clarke as the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) civil rights chief, making her the first Black woman to fill the distinguished role.
The vote was 51-48, and Sen. Susan Collins was the only Republican that voted in support of President Joe Biden’s nominee to lead a powerful division of the Justice Department.
The Department of Justice is now poised to live up to its name with Kristen Clarke confirmed as the Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division. Now, people know again that hate and injustice will be held accountable. pic.twitter.com/OBQiGSc18W
— Lawyers' Committee 866-OUR-VOTE (@LawyersComm) May 26, 2021
As the head of the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division, Clarke will be in charge of investigating abuses and violations within the police force, enforcing voting rights laws and federal statutes that prohibit discrimination based on identity factors, such as race, gender, or religion.
Clarke is taking on the position at a critical time for the DOJ, as high-profile instances of police brutality and the deaths of Black citizens have led to months of massive protests and increased calls for reform.
Clarke’s confirmation hearing was notably held on the same day in 2020 that George Floyd was murdered by ex-Minneapolis officer Derek Chauvin.
This afternoon, the Senate will finally vote on the nomination of @KristenClarkeJD to lead DOJ’s Civil Rights Division. Fitting to restore strong leadership & name the 1st Black woman to lead the Division to honor George Floyd’s memory on the anniversary of his death.
— Joyce Alene (@JoyceWhiteVance) May 25, 2021
Clarke has worked as a civil rights attorney for many years, and previously led the Civil Rights Bureau at the New York Attorney General’s Office.
In 2015, she was placed in charge of the Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, during a time when the organization filed more than 250 lawsuits on voting rights, hate crimes, education and housing, among other areas.
“Having known Kristen for more than two decades and most recently serving as her top deputy, I know she is exactly the person we need at this moment when threats to civil rights have peaked,” Damon Hewitt, acting president and executive director of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, said in a statement.
Clarke was ceremonially sworn in by Vice President Kamala Harris at the Justice Department on the evening of May 25. In a statement before the ceremony, Harris spokesperson Symone Sanders praised Clarke as a “timeless champion of equal justice.”
Kristen Clarke has spent her career fighting for equal justice and protecting Americans’ civil and voting rights. As the Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights, she will continue that fight as we see a rise in voter suppression and hate crimes across the country. pic.twitter.com/7HSstTZu1o
— Vice President Kamala Harris (@VP) May 26, 2021
"This is a historic moment because for the first time since its creation, following the enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1957, the confirmed Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights will be a woman, and will be a Black woman, and that is Kristen Clarke," Sanders said.
Clarke is a first-generation American whose parents emigrated from Jamaica. She earned degrees from Harvard University and Columbia University School of Law.
Senate Republicans have been adamantly opposed to Clarke, claiming that previous statements she has made on issues like voting rights, religious liberty and policing have caused them to question her commitment to being a nonpartisan enforcer of civil rights.
"A vote for Kristen Clarke is a vote to defund the police," Sen. Tom Cotton said before the vote on May 25.
Sens. Ted Cruz, Josh Hawley and Mitch McConnell also declined to support Clarke’s nomination, alluding to her views on police reform.
“This is not the right nominee for a crucial post at a crucial time," McConnell said on Monday, May 24, pointing to the recent rise in violent crime across the U.S.
During a recent hearing on untraceable firearms, Cruz used his platform to criticize both Clarke and Vanita Gupta, the first woman of color to become associate attorney general, labeling them both as “radicals.”
Democrats discharging Kristen Clarke’s troubled nomination from the Judiciary Committee is a grave error.
As I’ve said repeatedly, she is a radical extremist with a laundry list of concerning issues plaguing her nomination that go far beyond her support for defunding the police.
— Senator Ted Cruz (@SenTedCruz) May 19, 2021
In an interview with CNN last week, Hawley said that he shared the same viewpoint as Cruz, saying that “the pattern of nominees by this administration have a very sort of radical leftist background.”
Clarke, however, clarified her previous statements on police reform, saying that she does not support a complete defunding of the entire police force, but would rather see more funds be distributed to social programs that would lead to a reduction in crime.
“I do support finding strategies to ensure that law enforcement can carry out their jobs more safely and effectively and channeling resources to emotional health treatment and other severely under-resourced areas,” Clarke said in response to a question from Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin.
Many of Clarke’s advocates stated their beliefs that she faced a tougher path to confirmation due to her race.
Derrick Johnson, president of the NAACP, told CNN that he also thinks the roadblocks and harsh critiques are due to her Blackness.
“I think it’s race, there is no other way to describe it,” he said. "When you compare that to the appointments that the former administration presented, and how under qualified they were for the positions especially for lifetime appointments to the federal bench, you can't draw any other conclusion but [that] it is racially motivated."
Whether her tough journey was racially motivated or not, Clarke has been confirmed, and is stepping into a significant role during a time where civil rights are under attack.
Kristen Clarke has proven herself to be an unwavering champion for justice, equality & civil rights. Today, the Senate has an opportunity to propel our nation forward by confirming her to lead the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division. We must #ConfirmClarke.
— Senator Reverend Raphael Warnock (@SenatorWarnock) May 25, 2021
"Our nation is a healthier place when we respect the rights of all communities. In every role I've held, I have worked for and with people of all backgrounds — regardless of race, national origin, religion and disability status," Clarke said.