Kristen Clarke Becomes First Woman of Color to Head Civil Rights Office

The controversial Biden pick was confirmed by the Senate to oversee the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division with a vote along partisan lines. 

Kristen Clarke, an attorney tapped by President Joe Biden for a directorship at the Department of Justice, testifies before the the Senate Judiciary Committee last month. (Image via Courthouse News)

WASHINGTON (CN) — Civil rights attorney Kristen Clarke was confirmed Tuesday as an assistant attorney general to oversee the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. She is the first woman and woman of color to lead the division since its founding in 1957. 

The vote was split 51-48 mostly along party lines, with Senator Susan Collins of Maine being the only Republican in favor of Clarke’s confirmation. 

Clarke previously served as the president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

“All people nationwide can be confident that we now have a civil rights leader who will enforce federal laws that protect us from discrimination and defend constitutional rights,” Damon Hewitt, the organization’s acting president, said in a statement. 

“Having known Kristen for more than two decades and most recently serving as her top deputy,” he continued, “I know she is exactly the person we need at this moment when threats to civil rights have peaked.” 

Clarke – like Vanita Gupta, who’s since been confirmed as associate attorney general – was a controversial choice due to her ideological background and past activism. In the days following her nomination by President Joe Biden, Clarke was criticized by Republican lawmakers and right-wing media for an article she wrote advocating for aggressive police reform.  

She was also repeatedly criticized for a Harvard Crimson op-ed she co-authored in 1994, satirizing Charles Murray’s book “The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure.” The article argued that Black people were genetically superior to white people to mimic the claims made by Murray.  

The attorney walked back her more controversial statements during her confirmation hearing last month, but a Senate Judiciary Committee meeting two weeks ago showed it wasn’t enough to sway Republicans.  

Senator John Cornyn, a Texas Republican, likened Clarke to Gupta and called her a “partisan warrior.”  

GOP Senator Mike Lee of Utah hinted at Clarke possibly supporting anti-Semitic views, noting that in 2017 she signed a letter defending activist Tamika Mallory, a Women’s March leader who came under fire for writing that white Jews “uphold white supremacy.” Clarke later claimed that the letter also denounced anti-Semitism.   

To refute these claims, the National Council of Jewish Women stated Tuesday that it “could not be more pleased” with Clarke’s confirmation.

“Our community and so many others can rest easier knowing Clarke will be at the helm of efforts to ensure our rights,” the group said, “including prohibiting discrimination; enforcing federal hate crimes law; securing voting rights; and advancing racial, gender, disability, ethnic, religious, immigrant, and LGBTQ justice.” 

The Senate Judiciary Committee was deadlocked over whether to advance Clarke for a full vote, but the Senate approved a procedural motion on May 18 to break the tie with a close 50-48 vote. 

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