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Black woman heads DOJ Civil Rights division

Kristen Clarke poised to rebuild after four years of Trump admin.

Charlene Crowell
Black woman heads DOJ Civil Rights division
Kristen Clark PHOTO: Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law

On the one-year anniversary of the death of George Floyd, a 51-48 vote in the U.S. Senate seals 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 (DOJ)’s 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, 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 Senator 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.

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

Clarke was tapped on January 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, along with legal colleagues and civil rights leaders. 

Clarke’s legal career takes on even more significance when one considers this daughter of Jamaican immigrants grew up in Brooklyn, New York’s public housing. 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. 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.”   

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: 

This February and 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, 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, 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, DOJ is currently investigating police practices in both Louisville, 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,” advised Clarke 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.

civil rights, DOJ, Kristen Clarke