Listening to Kristen Clarke speak during her confirmation hearing this week filled me with joy and pride. Clarke has been nominated to lead the Civil Rights Division at the Department of Justice, and I am thrilled that someone so remarkably dedicated, humble, and qualified will become the country’s top civil rights official. She has decades of civil rights experience in leadership roles on virtually every issue—religious freedom, hate crimes, voting rights, sex discrimination, workplace equality, and health care access. She is deserving of this role, and I admire her willingness to serve our country and fulfill the real promise of equal justice under the law.
But, if you were watching her confirmation hearing, it would be hard to miss the same pattern of interruptions, aggressive questions, and intentional disinformation that many of the women of color President Biden nominated to his administration have also faced. Clarke’s hearing was eerily similar to Vanita Gupta’s hearing weeks earlier, where senators used coded language to try to attack Gupta’s stellar record. At times, I forgot that another nominee was even at this week’s hearing. By our count, Todd Kim, AAG nominee for the Environmental and Natural Resources Division, received just six questions, while Clarke received 74. Republican senators interrupted Clarke numerous times, prompting Chairman Durbin to step in to ensure she could finish her answers. Despite the hostility, Clarke remained unflappable and poised throughout the hearing, showcasing her depth and breadth of experience. She was flawless, but we must be prepared for the uphill battle for her confirmation.
It was particularly striking that Clarke’s opponents repeatedly labeled her record as “controversial,” “extreme,” and “partisan.” But here are the facts: she was a civil rights advocate at highly respected institutions, Department of Justice, the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, Civil Rights Bureau for the New York State Attorney General’s Office, and the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights. But now, she is being questioned for her work fighting against voter suppression and call for police accountability.
Why is civil rights a dirty word? Why is a record of championing for civil rights for everyday people being painted as extreme and partisan?
While nominees for the head of the Civil Rights Division have historically been attacked for being “too radical,” that is only part of the story. The other part is an insidious practice of labeling women of color as biased or controversial for having life experiences and opinions that differ from what they deem as ‘mainstream’ (corporate, straight, white, male perspective).
Ironically, the Republicans on the committee repeatedly tried to push Clarke to say that opposing a woman of color does not necessarily make them racist or sexist. Sure, but then they should stop using racist and sexist tropes. If they disagree with civil rights or voting rights, they should just come out and say it. But instead, they are trying to paint a lifelong civil rights champion who has fought to keep the doors of justice open for the most vulnerable as dangerous and lawless – this is precisely the all-too-familiar racist and sexist trope used to vilify powerful women of color who defy expectations. Stop perpetuating sexism and racism and instead, actively work against it, and we will stop calling it out.
Kristen Clarke is a trailblazer. Her personal story and commitment to greater access to opportunity is simply inspirational. She would be the first woman to be confirmed in this role, and the first Black woman to ever hold the position. She is the real deal. #WeHaveHerBack, so let’s get to work to #ConfirmClarke.