DOJ nominee Kristen Clarke wants to make the promise of 'justice for all' a reality

She could be the first Black woman to lead the DOJ's Civil Rights Division.

January 26, 2021, 10:20 AM

Just a day after the attack on the U.S. Capitol, at the formal announcement of her nomination to assistant attorney general for civil rights, Kristen Clarke made it clear where she stands on hate and discrimination.

"We are at a crossroads," she told a small audience of reporters in Wilmington, Delaware. "If I am fortunate enough to be confirmed, we will turn the page on hate and close the door on discrimination by enforcing our federal civil rights laws."

If confirmed, Clarke -- through the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice -- will be at the center of issues like the rise of white nationalism, voting rights, immigrant rights, criminal justice reform and so much more. Her nomination comes as the Biden administration aims to restore the reputation of the DOJ after the politicization of the agency by the Trump administration.

In an interview with ABC News, Clarke would only speak generally about her goals for the role, but she did indicate that she sees the DOJ as an important part of reform in the area of civil rights.

"I want to ensure that the doors of justice remain open (so) all the people can feel that they are seen and heard, especially when we are talking about the most vulnerable among us," said Clarke. "I am very hopeful that we will see the Justice Department truly be an engine of reform when it comes to enforcement of our nation's federal civil rights laws."

PHOTO: Kristen Clarke in a handout photo.
Kristen Clarke in a handout photo.
Courtesy Kristen Clarke

In President Joe Biden's historically diverse administration, she too will make history. If confirmed, she will be the first Black woman at the helm of the office created by the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1957. Vanita Gupta, who served as the acting assistant attorney general, was the first woman of color to run the division under Barack Obama. Clarke is moving forward with a lucid understanding of her place in history.

"I want to see more of these glass ceilings of opportunity ripped down as we forge ahead as a country," Clarke told ABC News. "We are a country that is becoming increasingly diverse and we want government and corporate America and every sector of our society to reflect that great diversity."

"The idea that the Civil Rights Division, whose entire mandate to enforce our civil rights law, hasn't had a woman -- and hasn't had a Black woman in particular -- is sort of stunning," said Fatima Goss Graves, the president and CEO of the National Women's Law Center, who has known Clarke for more than a decade. "So it's time to correct it."

PHOTO: Kristen Clarke delivers remarks after being nominated to be civil rights division assistant attorney general by President-elect Joe Biden at The Queen theater in Wilmington, Del., Jan. 7, 2021
Kristen Clarke delivers remarks after being nominated to be civil rights division assistant attorney general by President-elect Joe Biden at The Queen theater in Wilmington, Del., Jan. 7, 2021
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

If confirmed, this wouldn't be her first stint at the Justice Department, Clarke started her legal career there as an attorney with the Civil Rights Division, prosecuting police misconduct, human trafficking, hate crimes, voting rights and political redistricting cases. She led the New York Civil Rights Bureau and worked to combat redlining and racial profiling. She currently serves as the president and executive director for the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, an organization that has focused on voting rights, economic justice and criminal justice reform for more than five decades.

"Having a Black woman in that position is important in this moment as this country grapples with racial justice issues that are very much centered in anti-Blackness," said Judith Browne Dianis who leads The Advancement Project, a racial justice organization. "I think that she will be a good advocate. She's done a lot of work around African American communities and civil rights issues confronting African American communities, but she also has a larger lens and she'll be thinking about how the issues of the day impact other communities of color."

One could argue that Clarke's lived experience, in addition to her professional experience, has uniquely prepared her for this role. She was born in Brooklyn, New York, to Jamaican immigrants working toward their piece of the American dream. Clarke credits them for her work ethic and determination.

"Growing up wasn't easy. It was very hard for my parents to make ends meet," said Clarke. "I know what it's like to struggle, I know what it's like for communities that are suffering, especially in the wake of the pandemic. I think that having that lens is something that has animated my work throughout my career -- kind of understanding what it's like to be on the other side."

Her family lived in a housing development called Starrett City in the East New York section of Brooklyn. East New York has long dealt with poverty and has been considered one of New York City's most dangerous neighborhoods. She is an alumna of a gifted education program in New York City called Prep for Prep, which ensures that students of color have access to educational opportunities at elite private schools. Through Prep for Prep, Clarke attended Choate Rosemary Hall, a prestigious boarding school in Wallingford, Connecticut. Straddling the two worlds -- Brooklyn and Wallingford -- gave Clarke a valuable perspective about access to opportunity that motivates her work to this day.

PHOTO: Kristen Clarke in a handout photo.
A photo of 14-year-old Kristen Clarke in a handout photo.
Courtesy Kristen Clarke

"It's a dichotomy then I think about all the time, what does it mean to be without access to opportunity and to be given a shot?" said Clarke. "And throughout every stage of my career I've tried to figure out how do we close these gaps in these divides that we face as a nation? How do we create a more level playing field? What would it look like if everyone were given a chance and given greater access to opportunity?"

Clarke said a visit to a courtroom during high school to watch arguments in a school desegregation case influenced her pursuit of a legal career in civil rights.

"Seeing the work that civil rights lawyers did in the courtroom that day lit a spark and prompted me to really think historically about the role that civil rights lawyers have played in our society," she said.

Clarke often cites as her inspiration, the first Black Supreme Court justice, Thurgood Marshall, and Constance Baker Motley, the first Black woman to argue a case before the Supreme Court and the first Black woman to serve as a federal judge.

Clarke's confirmation hearing hasn't yet been scheduled, but she is optimistic about the work that lies before her, calling this time an "inflection point" for the nation.

"I am very hopeful that we are going to see this new administration, in every respect, taking bold action that moves us closer to that promise of equal justice under law for all, with the U.S. Department of Justice being uniquely positioned to truly help breathe life into that promise," said Clarke.

Editor's Note: A previous version of this story mistakenly referred to Kristen Clarke as being the first woman of color to lead the Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division, if confirmed. The story has been updated to reflect that she will be the first Black woman, but not the first woman of color. Vanita Gupta, who served as the acting assistant attorney general, was the first woman of color to run the division under Barack Obama.

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