There are few people in the country today who have more experience fighting in the judicial trenches to preserve civil rights than Kristen Clarke, President Biden’s nominee to head the civil rights division of the Department of Justice.
As the president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, Ms. Clarke filed or participated in more than a hundred lawsuits challenging efforts to make it more difficult to vote. During the 2020 presidential campaign, she seemed to be everywhere at once.
In South Carolina, she represented the League of Women Voters, which sued because state election officials were poised to throw out absentee ballots for minor issues, like the loop of a letter in a signature. In Tennessee, she fought a law that required first-time voters to show up in person during a pandemic. And in Georgia, more than 800 voters contacted her organization’s hotline for help on Election Day.
Ms. Clarke doesn’t fight just for Black voters. She fights for all voters to have greater access to the ballot box. That’s exactly what the head of the civil rights division ought to focus on. Ms. Clarke started her career in the voting rights section of Department of Justice, serving under both President Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.
Her work inspired a field of research that seeks to use math to help determine fair political districts. Moon Duchin, a mathematician at Tufts University who has established a lab to study gerrymandering, is a national leader in this field who has held workshops and conferences to educate people on what is at stake when districts get redrawn. Too often, politicians pick their voters rather than the other way around. Dr. Duchin looks to math to figure out a better way.
How did Dr. Duchin get interested in this topic? Ms. Clarke, her friend since high school, visited Dr. Duchin’s class to talk about enforcement of the Voting Rights Act.
I got to know Kristen Clarke in Washington about 15 years ago. She was that rare friend you could take anywhere, to a church service or a karaoke bar or speech about public policy. Wherever she went, she connected with people with grace, humor and humility. That’s why it has been so stunning to watch the smear campaign against her that has been ginned up by some conservatives.
Tucker Carlson, the Fox News host, has run at least six segments on her since January. He erroneously claimed that she had been the president of the “Black Studies Association” at Harvard in the 1990s, as if she’d been a professor. In fact, she’d been the 19-year-old president of the Black Students Association.
He also claimed she was a purveyor of hate who wrote a “shocking” letter to Harvard’s student newspaper promoting the genetic superiority of Black people. In fact, the letter was a satirical response to “The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life,” a book that, among other things, portrayed Black people as intellectually inferior. Mr. Carlson might as well have done an exclusive investigation about cannibalism in Ireland following the publication of Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal.”
He went on to call Ms. Clarke anti-Semitic because she hosted Tony Martin, a controversial Wellesley professor, on Harvard’s campus in 1994. It’s true that his visit offended many Jewish students — Professor Martin was known at the time for promulgating the theory that Jews played a dominant role in the slave trade.
Ms. Clarke has since admitted that the invitation was a mistake. And she’s gone on to have an impressive career fighting for religious freedom for Jews. From 2011 to 2015, she led the civil rights bureau at the office of the New York attorney general, Eric Schneiderman, where she spearheaded a religious-rights initiative that ensured that Jewish employees could observe the Sabbath and other holy days.
That’s one reason that so many Jewish organizations have come to her defense. The Jewish Council for Public Affairs, a network of 125 Jewish community relation councils and 16 national Jewish agencies, recently sent a letter to the Senate calling “attempts to focus on purported anti-Semitism during her confirmation process to be inappropriate, pretextual and baseless.” The Union for Reform Judaism, which represents 1.8 million Jews nationwide, called her “a steadfast ally.”
In fact, it is Mr. Carlson who is under fire from such groups for anti-Semitism in recent days. The Anti-Defamation League has urged Fox News to fire him for “an impassioned defense of the white supremacist ‘great replacement theory.’”
Mr. Carlson has also pursued another baseless line of attack, claiming that Ms. Clarke “worked very hard” to free Mumia Abu-Jamal, who was convicted of killing a Philadelphia police officer. This, too, is a right-wing fever dream. She never worked on that case. Her sole connection is that, as a law student in 1999, she provided support to the organizers of a conference at Columbia Law School that featured a panel about the case. Her name appeared at the bottom of a flyer.
Mr. Carlson’s attempts to paint her as a radical champion of cop-killers has been refuted by none other than — wait for it — the police. More than three dozen current and former police chiefs described Ms. Clarke as a person of “impeccable credentials, character and credibility” in a letter to senators supporting her nomination. The letter said that as a federal prosecutor, “she demonstrated an uncanny ability to work closely with federal and state and local law enforcement officials” as well as crime victims.
Let’s get real here. The real reason some conservatives want to take down Ms. Clarke is that she’s been an effective champion of voting rights for Black, brown and poor people. That’s why she was nominated. And that’s why people like Tucker Carlson are grasping at straws to tank her nomination with lies.
This seems to happen any time a lawyer with a background in civil rights is nominated to lead the Justice Department’s civil rights division. In 2014, the same playbook sank the nomination of Debo Adegbile, another well-known civil rights lawyer. And at a recent confirmation hearing, Republicans attacked Vanita Gupta, President Biden’s nominee to be associate attorney general, for the harsh tone of her tweets during the Trump years.
There’s something absurd about Mr. Carlson going back the 1990s to dig up dirt on Kristen Clarke. You need to go back only to 2007 to hear him comparing women to dogs on a shock jock radio show. But when it comes to women of color with a record of fighting for voting rights, suddenly people care about the tone of a tweet.
During the confirmation hearing of Merrick Garland, Mr. Biden’s pick for attorney general, Mike Lee, a Republican from Utah, asked whether he thought Ms. Clarke’s comments from college were disqualifying. I’ll be watching Ms. Clarke’s confirmation hearing on Wednesday to see if anyone else follows up on Tucker Carlson’s discredited reports.
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