Charlene CrowellColumnistsFinancial Literacy

The Significance of Kristen Clarke Becoming First Black Woman to Lead DOJ’s Civil Rights Division

On the one-year anniversary of the death of George Floyd, a 51-48 vote in the U.S. Senate sealed Kristen Clarke’s place in history: the first woman, the first woman of color, and the first Black woman to receive Senate confirmation to head the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) Civil Rights Division. The largely partisan vote included Maine’s U.S. Senator Susan Collins as the only Republican to support the historic confirmation.

After years of rollbacks to hard-won racial progress, Ms. Clarke and all of DOJ are poised to correct, reverse and advance “justice for all” as a genuine reality instead of a slogan. The COVID-19 pandemic and recession have thrown into sharp view vast health disparities and economic inequities. Much of Black America has suffered in ways that harkened back to Jim Crow and its separate, but never equal, status.

For Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, Clarke’s nomination is as significant as it is promising.

“At this moment in history, filling this division, the Civil Rights Division, on the anniversary of George Floyd’s murder on the streets of Minnesota, we are confirming the first woman of color in the history of the United States to head this division,” Durbin said. “It is a historic choice. … It shouldn’t be trivialized by ignoring the many endorsements she received because of her good life’s work, having spent her entire career defending the civil rights of all Americans.”

“Kristen Clarke is the right person at the right time to serve as Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights,” said Center for Responsible Lending Federal Advocacy Director and Senior Counsel Ashley Harrington. “Her vast experience in civil rights law reflects our country’s challenges — from fighting against mortgage discrimination and a grossly inequitable criminal justice system to taking on hate crimes and voter suppression aimed at denying Black and brown people the right to vote. We are excited for Ms. Clarke to take the helm in protecting the civil rights of all Americans.”

Since a new administration began in January, a series of hopeful signs signal that regressive and harmful practices will be challenged in the name of justice.

Nominated on Jan. 7 by President Biden, his remarks noted Clarke’s nomination for both its significance and opportunity.

“The Civil Rights Division represents the moral center of the Department of Justice. And the heart of that fundamental American ideal that we’re all created equal and all deserve to be treated equally,” Biden said. “I’m honored you accepted the call to return to make real the promise for all Americans.”

Soon thereafter, a tsunami of endorsements for Clarke’s confirmation highlighted national and diverse support for her service. Her backers included labor unions, environmental activists, law enforcement officials, legal colleagues and civil rights leaders.

Perhaps one of the earliest and most poignant expressions came from John W. Marshall, son of the late Thurgood Marshall, the nation’s first Black associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. Penned on behalf of his family, the Feb. 9 letter to U.S. Senate leadership drew a key historic connection.

“Ms. Clarke is a pathbreaking lawyer, like my father, who built her career advancing civil rights and equal justice under the law, and breaking barriers through her leadership for people of color while making our nation better for everyone,” Marshall wrote.

His letter also shared an eye-opening example of Clarke’s groundbreaking work in civil rights.

“Ms. Clarke has successfully utilized the law as a vehicle for advancing equality, as my father did,” he wrote. “For example, she successfully represented Taylor Dumpson, who was targeted for a hate crime after her election as American University’s first female Black student body president.”

Similarly, the NAACP — the nation’s oldest and largest civil rights organization — advised Senate leadership before its scheduled confirmation hearing of its support for Clarke.

On April 12, Derrick Johnson, the organization’s president and CEO, wrote, “The NAACP believes that Ms. Clarke is exceptionally suited to oversee the Civil Rights Division at a time when people of color have suffered devastating harm at the hands of law enforcement. She is the leader we need to ensure local police agencies are complying with civil rights laws and advancing public safety by maintaining positive relationships with the communities they serve. Ms. Clarke has prosecuted police misconduct cases and has worked to make the criminal justice system fairer for people of color.”

Clarke’s legal career takes on even more significance when one considers that the daughter of Jamaican immigrants grew up in public housing in New York City’s Brooklyn borough. Although financial resources were limited, the family’s teachings of discipline and hard work were not. From public schools, her collegiate studies took her to the prestigious Ivy League.

In 1997, she received her bachelor’s degree from Harvard University. Three years later in 2000, Clarke completed her Juris Doctor at Columbia University.

Her first job as a new attorney was as a federal prosecutor with the Department of Justice, working on voting rights, hate crimes, and human trafficking cases. In 2006, she joined the NAACP Legal Defense Fund until then New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman appointed her as director of the state’s Civil Rights Bureau. In this state role, Clarke led enforcement actions spanning criminal justice, voting rights, fair lending, housing discrimination, disability rights, reproductive access and LGBTQ rights.

As recognition of her legal acumen grew, so did the number of honors she received: the 2010 Paul Robeson Distinguished Alumni Award from Columbia Law School, 2011 National Bar Association’s Top 40 Under 40, the 2012 Best Brief Award for the 2012 Supreme Court term from the National Association of Attorneys General, and the New York Law Journal’s 2015 Rising Stars.

Months later, the August 2016 edition of the American Bar Association (ABA) Journal featured a Q&A interview with Clarke. In part, she reflected on her childhood and how it influenced her career aspirations.

“I’ve experienced what it’s like to be underprivileged, and I’ve experienced very privileged settings as well,” she said. “I feel a deep sense of responsibility to use the opportunities that I have been given to help those less fortunate. We live in a nation that’s divided along lines of race and class. I have a personal sense of what life is like on both sides of that divide, and I want to figure out how we close some of those gaps and level the playing field.”

At the April 14 Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on her nomination, Clarke recalled her legal career journey and the principles that guided her work.

“I began my legal career traveling across the country to communities like Tensas Parish, Louisiana and Clarksdale, Mississippi,” she testified. “I learned to be a lawyer’s lawyer – to focus on the rule of law and let the facts lead where they may.

“When I left DOJ, I carried the words of the late Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall as my guide: ‘Where you see wrong or inequality or injustice, speak out, because this is your country. This is your democracy. Make it. Protect it. Pass it on,'” Clarke said. “I’ve tried to do just that at every step of my career.”

Now, Clarke returns to the Department of Justice at a time when the agency is recommitting its focus on serving the entire nation equitably. Since early this year, a series of actions reflect the agency’s renewed commitment to civil rights. Here are a few examples:

In February, following an FBI investigation, a Michigan man was indicted on a charge of hate crimes after confronting Black teenagers with racial slurs and weapons for their use of a public beach.

In March, two former Louisiana correctional officers were sentenced for their roles in a cover-up of a 2014 prisoner’s death at the state’s St. Bernard Parish that followed a failure to provide medical treatment while incarcerated.

In April, the DOJ and the City of West Monroe, Louisiana reached a consent agreement following a lawsuit alleging violation of the Voting Rights Act. Although nearly a third of the city was Black, the at-large election of city aldermen resulted in all-white local officials. With the consent decree, the method of aldermen selection will change to a combination of single district representatives and others elected at large.

On May 7, the DOJ issued a three-count indictment of four Minneapolis police officers on federal civil rights charges in the death of George Floyd. Additionally, convicted former officer Derek Chauvin faces an additional two-count indictment for his actions in 2017 against a 14-year-old teenager. The indictment charges Chauvin with keeping his knee on the youth’s neck and upper back, as well as using a flashlight as a weapon.

Additionally, the DOJ is currently investigating police practices in both Louisville, Kentucky, and Minneapolis. Readers may recall that Breonna Taylor was killed in her Louisville home during a late-night, no-knock warrant police entry.

“Our nation is a healthier place when we respect the rights of all communities,” Clarke advised in her confirmation hearing remarks. “In every role I’ve held, I have worked with and for people of all backgrounds. … 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.”

Charlene Crowell is a senior fellow with the Center for Responsible Lending.

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