Kristen Clarke made history, but race and politics nearly stood in the way … again

OPINION: Republican attempts to deny the confirmation of Kristen Clarke to head the DOJ's Civil Rights Division is reminiscent of Lani Guinier, another Black woman nominated for the post

Kristen Clarke
Former Executive director Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Kristen Clarke (Photo by Bennett Raglin/Getty Images for BET)

It’s always hard to be the first. But in some instances, the first is usually the most obvious person to blaze the trail. So is the case of the newly confirmed Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Kristen Clarke.

Clarke, who is Harvard-educated and served as a senior member of the NAACP leadership, is the first woman and the first woman of color to be confirmed for the important post first established in 1957 by President Dwight D. Eisenhower. But it didn’t come without tense opposition from Republicans.

Read More: Kristen Clarke to become first Black woman to head DOJ Civil Rights Division

The Civil Rights Division within the U.S. Department of Justice is the institution within the federal government responsible for enforcing federal statutes prohibiting discrimination on the basis of race, sex, disability, religion and national origin. As mentioned, the office was established in the late 1950s on Dec. 9, 1957, by order of then-Attorney General William P. Rogers, after the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1957.

I am old enough to remember the botched nomination of University of Pennsylvania Professor Lani Guinier, who I met as a law school student, during her 1993 nomination by President Bill Clinton as his head of Civil Rights. Guinier too was Black, female, overqualified, brilliant and very prepared to lead the office. She was also a classmate of Bill and Hillary Clinton at Yale law school.

Lani Guinier
Lani Guinier (Photo: University of Texas at Austin)

But, just as with Clarke, Republican senators came after her nomination not based on her lack of credentials or worthiness to hold the office, but instead on her racial and political theories. Conservatives dubbed her “quota Queen” for her support of affirmative action policies, and they attacked her legal writings as too far left and radical.

Worst of all, she was mocked by conservatives for her “strange name, strange hair, strange writings.”

All of that aside, what bothered me the most about her nomination was that she was denied the right to confront her attackers and defend her views at a Senate hearing. She was owed that much. But a scared Bill Clinton, carving out his new kind of centrist Democratic Party, made the decision to withdraw her nomination early, stating, “I cannot fight a battle that I know is divisive, that is an uphill battle, that is distracting to the country if I did not believe in the ground of the battle.”

And so it went. Guinier’s name was pulled despite her protests and those of many others. And there went history.

This time, with the nomination of Clarke, some 27 years later, Clarke faced intense scrutiny and attacks for her work in the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and for being a tireless advocate for the rights of victims of police violence. She was attacked for suggesting that “defunding the police” was a strategic option to be considered in a piece she penned for Newsweek.  She was also attacked for her tweets, which sometimes went after Republican senators and Trump DOJ policies addressing civil rights.

Read More: Leaders urge historic DOJ confirmation of Kristen Clarke against GOP opposition

Kristen Clarke
Kristen Clarke delivers remarks after being nominated to be civil rights division assistant attorney general by President-elect Joe Biden. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

One Republican senator, Ted Cruz of Texas, was particularly vitriolic in his opposition to Clarke just before the vote on Tuesday, which also happened to be the one-year anniversary of George Floyd’s murder at the hands of police. 

In a statement released by Cruz (in his own handwriting), he wrote, in part, “Kristen Clarke is completely unfit to serve as Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division. Not only has she made her disgust for law enforcement clear by her repeated calls to defund the police, she has a history of not only excusing, but celebrating criminals who have murdered police officers.”

If that doesn’t tell you all you need to know, nothing will. 

It was Republican Senator Susan Collins of Maine who helped push Clarke over the top. One of just 24 women in the Senate and one of its most senior members, Collins, who is a moderate, is always linked with fellow Senators Mitt Romney, Lisa Murkowski and Ben Sasse as a possible swing vote with Democrats. It was Murkowski that saved Vanita Gupta’s nomination for DOJ’s associate attorney general.

Although Collins did not release a statement as to why she supported Clarke, I am glad that she did. It’s ironic how the Republican leadership has allowed not-so-bright Rep. Majorie Taylor Greene to run wild, insult Jewish citizens, debase the Holocaust, attack congresswomen of color.

Georgia Republican Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (Photo by Dustin Chambers/Getty Images)

And yet, Republicans worked so hard to tear down Biden’s overly-qualified women-of-color nominees like Clarke, Gupta, Neera Tanden. Two out of three made it, but Tandeen was taken down and had to withdraw her nomination as the director of the Office in Management and Budget. 

In yet another turn of history, Clarke was sworn in by Vice President Kamala Harris, making for a powerful portrait of a new generation of Black female leadership in the Biden administration, two trailblazers lighting the way for what we all hope are better days ahead for Black and Brown women nominated to high office or the Supreme Court. 


Sophia Nelson thegrio.com

Sophia A. Nelson is a contributing editor at theGrio.

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