Meet Kristen Clarke, Biden’s historic appointee to champion civil rights at the DOJ
EXCLUSIVE: Clarke spoke with theGrio about potentially being the first Black woman to serve as Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division at the DOJ
Editor’s note: Additional reporting for this story was conducted by DeMicia Inman.
Civil rights attorney Kristen Clarke says better days are coming for America.
“I think that 2021, it is a year of hope,” Clarke told theGrio in an exclusive interview.
Clarke, a longtime champion of civil rights, is President Joe Biden‘s pick to serve as Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division at the Department of Justice and, if confirmed, would be the first Black woman in history to serve in the role.
Lani Guinier was the first Black woman to be nominated to the post by former President Bill Clinton in 1993. However, Clinton withdrew the nomination following a campaign against Guinier fueled by conservatives who painted her as radical.
“There is a deep commitment to ensuring equal justice under law for our most vulnerable communities,” Clark told theGrio regarding her new role and the department’s focus in the Biden-Harris era.
Clarke presently serves as president & executive director of the National Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and has also spent several years at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. She also worked as a federal prosecutor, where she handled police misconduct, police brutality, hate crimes, and human trafficking cases.
Under the Trump administration, the Department of Justice faced scrutiny for rolling back civil rights protections and using its power to investigate issues personal to the former president’s agenda. But under President Biden, a different mandate has been made clear:
“I want to be clear to those who lead this department who you will serve. You won’t work for me. You are not the president or the vice-president’s lawyer. Your loyalty is not to me,” Biden said. “It’s to the law, the Constitution, the people of this nation, to guarantee justice.”
Clarke agrees and says a key component of the DOJ working for the people, is respecting the power of non-violent protestors who call out racial and social injustice.
“This Justice Department is one in which people will be seen and heard, and I think that’s important, I think too often communities feel marginalized and feel that their voices don’t matter,” Clarke told theGrio.
“It’s all about equal justice under law and ensuring that the rights of vulnerable communities are protected.”
For Clarke, a Brooklyn native, born to Jamaican parents, the inspiration to become an attorney happened on a high school field trip where she observed a school desegregation case in-person. Clarke saw the legacies of Black American attorneys like Thurgood Marshall and Constance Baker Motley alive and well, and committed her life to use the law as a tool for justice.
Clarke says the same way an educational program for students of color like Prep For Prep changed her life as a child, opening her mind to the power of the law, today’s young people can draw similar inspiration.
“We are going to need more civil rights lawyers on the front lines. So I hope we will see more people who will continue to think about career paths in social justice, government service, and in the civil rights sector because these are gateways to opportunity when it comes to advancing change and confronting injustice in our country.”
Today a new generation of Black Americans has grown up witnessing police brutality, rising hate crimes, and a system of unequal treatment, which allows violent insurrectionists to storm the U.S. capitol and walk away, while peaceful Black Lives Matter protesters fear beatings and arrests.
According to a recent survey by the Pew Research Center, more Black and Hispanic adults say the U.S. has not gone far enough to make progress on racial equality.
When asked about skepticism from Black Americans about whether progress can actually be achieved through policy and a justice system that has not always delivered justice, Clarke is empathetic but insistent that change must happen.
“This work is a marathon and not a sprint,” Clarke says. “We can’t take our eye off the ball when it comes to promoting justice and standing up for the most vulnerable in our country.”
Natasha S. Alford is the VP of Digital Content and Senior Correspondent at theGrio. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram at @natashasalford.
DeMicia Inman is a writer and journalist covering music, culture, and trending news. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @DeMiciaValon to stay updated.
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