Kristen Clarke, President Joe Biden’s nominee to lead the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, defended her record against some skeptical senators during her confirmation hearing on Wednesday as a groundswell of supporters says there’s an urgency for Clarke to take office and lead the team of federal prosecutors to address recent allegations of unconstitutional acts across the country, including police killings of unarmed people of color.
If Clarke, 45, is confirmed, she would be the first Black woman to lead this division since its inception in 1957.
Wednesday’s Judiciary Committee hearing was filled with questions from members that resurfaced controversial moments that go back as far as her undergraduate years at Harvard University where she co-authored an article that compared the genetics of Blacks and Whites and as the leader of Harvard’s Black Students’ Association where she invited an anti-Semitic author for a speaking engagement.
Clarke confronted both situations over 25 years ago by apologizing for giving the author a platform and explained after the article published that she did not share those views. But, in recent months when right-wing news outlets resurfaced the article to denounce her nomination, she has met with several Jewish organizations and reiterated to the Union of Reform Judaism that “she erred” in her decisions.
Clarke explained to Texas Sen. John Cornyn on Wednesday that the article was written as satire about “a racist book that equated DNA with genetics and race” entitled “The Bell Curve Theory.”
Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, a Republican, caused a brief brouhaha with Judiciary Chairman Dick Durbin for repeatedly interrupting Clarke as she attempted to respond to a question about her views on defunding the police. Clarke said at the top of the hearing in response to a question from the Illinois Democrat that she did not believe in defunding the police, but to rather provide more resources for them.
“I do not support defunding the police,” she said. “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.”
Dwayne Crawford, the executive director of the National Organization for Black Law Enforcement Executives, says Clarke’s confirmation is timely to continue to foster the needs of law enforcement and the American people that “are not just Republican or Democratic issues.”
Clarke’s hearing falls in the midst of murder trial for a White former Minneapolis police officer who was seen on cellphone video callously kneeing on a 46-year-old Black man’s neck for over nine minutes until his death and days after a nearby city is grappling with the fatal shooting of a 20-year-old Black man by a White police officer who allegedly mistook her service weapon for a taser.
Coupled with the raise in hate crime attacks against Asian American Pacific Islanders and multiple mass shootings, civil rights groups have been calling for diverse leadership in the Justice Department to tackle these issues after the last administration was practically mute.
The Justice Department has routinely engaged in pattern-or-practice investigations in an effort to reform excessive force, biased policing and other unconstitutional practices by law enforcement. But in 2018, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions signed a memo sharply limiting the use of consent decrees – the court-approved deals between the Justice Department and local governments to map out changes for law enforcement institutions.
Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton criticized Clarke’s career as the leader of the Lawyers’ Committee by classifying it as a “left-wing advocacy organization” that “always jumps to conclusions about police officer who have to use force to protect themselves or to protect innocent, law-abiding Americans.”
Cotton asked Clarke how she would balance advocating for police reform and civil rights for citizens.
“As a private citizen running a non-partisan organization, I appreciate that it’s a different role. You have my commitment, senator, that if I am confirmed to this position, I’ll do what I did as a dedicated career attorney inside the Justice Department which is follow the facts and the law and be guided by the work of FBI agents and other federal law enforcement agents if and when these matters arise,” Clarke said.
As a first-generation born American with parents who immigrated from Jamaica, West Indies, Clarke’s legal career began at the Justice Department which has allowed her to travel across the country into communities like Tensas Parish, Louisiana, and Clarksdale, Mississippi, she said in her opening statements that were released on Tuesday.
“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 wrote. “I’ve listened deeply to all sides of debates, regardless of political affiliation. There is no substitute to listening and learning in this work, and I pledge to you that I will bring that to the role if confirmed.”
On behalf the Lawyers’ Committee, Clarke has publicly denounced the nominations of Supreme Court Justices Neil Gorsuch and Amy Coney Barrett in 2017 and 2020, respectively. The committee submitted statements that expressed their concerns of the abilities of Gorsuch and Barrett to “fairly interpret and apply civil rights laws” at the time their nominations were up for consideration before the Senate Judiciary committee. The Lawyer’s Committee has also held White supremacy groups like the Proud Boys accountable by filing a lawsuit against them for defacing a historical Black church in Washington, DC.
Pending Clarke’s confirmation, Attorney General Merrick Garland announced on March 30 launching a 30-day “expedited review” to figure out how the Justice Department can “deploy all the tools at its disposal” to combat hate crimes across the country.
Regarding the allegations of anti-Semitism, Clarke was given the opportunity by Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal to speak to the Jewish community rather than asked a question about “the allusions” that were “unfairly referenced” by other members of the committee.
Dozens of other Jewish organizations including the URJ, where Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner is a representative of their social justice office, have endorsed Clarke’s nomination and denounced those who may weaponize anti-Semitism to stop her nomination.
“With the threat of white supremacy and violent anti-Semitism on the rise in our country, to accuse someone like Kristen Clarke of engaging in anti-Semitism is as laughable as it is offensive,” Sheila Katz, the CEO of the National Council of Jewish Women, said in a statement after the hearing. “Again and again, Kristen Clarke has demonstrated a commitment to dismantling all forms of oppression, including anti-Semitism. Those seeking to use this line of attack are not only engaging in misinformation, but are making the work of confronting real anti-Semitism harder.”
In Clarke’s previous role as the head of the New York State Attorney General’s Civil Rights Bureau, she launched their Religious Rights Initiative that ensures religious freedoms for employees. The program provides Jewish workers the flexibility to observe the Sabbath.
This story has been updated with details from the hearing.
CNN’s Jessica Schneider contributed to this report.