Charlene Crowell: Historic Justice Division appointment, early actions sign hope for Black America | Commentary
In recent years, many people of different races and ethnicities have struggled against setbacks to hard-won racial advancement. From health inequalities exposed in the COVID-19 pandemic to voting rights, criminal justice, fair living, and more, much of Black America has suffered in ways that go back to Jim Crow and his separate, but never equal, status .
But since a new government took office in January this year, there have been a number of hopeful signs that regressive and harmful practices are being challenged in the name of justice. On May 25, the US Senate confirmed Kristen Clarke as Assistant Attorney General for the Department of Justice for the Civil Rights Division. Never before has a black woman headed this department, which leads the federal government’s commitment to civil rights for all.
In his remarks following her nomination on Jan. 7, President Joe Biden pointed out both the importance and the chance of her selection.
“The Civil Rights Department represents the moral center of the Justice Department. And at the heart of that fundamental American ideal that we are all created equal and we all deserve to be treated equally, ”he said. “I am honored that you accepted the call to return to make the promise come true for all Americans.”
Soon after, a tsunami of support for Clarke’s endorsement revealed national and diverse support for her service. The list of supporters included trade unions, environmental activists and law enforcement officers, as well as lawyers and civil rights activists.
Perhaps one of the earliest and most poignant remarks was made by the son of the United States’ first black associate magistrate to the United States Supreme Court, John W. Marshall. The February 9 letter to the Senate leadership, written on behalf of his family, made an important historical connection.
“MS. Clarke is a pioneering lawyer like my father who built her career advancing civil rights and equal justice under the law, and through her leadership, breaking barriers for people of color while making our nation better for all,” wrote Mr. Marshall.
His letter also contained an illuminating example of Ms. Clarke’s pioneering work in civil rights. “MS. Clarke has successfully used the law as a tool to promote equality, as my father did. For example, she successfully represented Taylor Dumpson, who was targeted for a hate crime following her election as American University’s first female black student body . “
Similarly, the country’s oldest and largest civil rights organization, the NAACP, also advised the Senate leadership ahead of the scheduled hearing to confirm their support for Ms. Clarke.
On April 12, Derrick Johnson, President and CEO wrote, “The NAACP believes Ms. Clarke is exceptionally well placed to oversee the Civil Rights Department at a time when people of color have suffered devastating damage from law enforcement. She is the leader we need to ensure that local law enforcement agencies comply with civil rights laws and promote public safety by cultivating positive relationships with the communities they serve. Ms. Clarke has followed up on police misconduct cases and worked to make the criminal justice system fairer for people of color. “
As president of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, Ms. Clarke has been a key partner in curbing predatory lending and in the fight for fair housing, including campaigns to end the payday loan debt trap and efforts to protect important protect fair housing / lending rules “Remarked Nikitra Bailey, EVP of the Center for Responsible Lending. “MS. Clarke’s experience as a Justice Department attorney and as the executive director of a leading civil rights organization not only qualifies her, it makes her the best candidate for this much-needed position.”
Ms. Clarke’s legal career is even more significant when you consider that this Jamaican immigrant daughter grew up in Brooklyn, New York’s public housing. Although financial resources were limited, the family’s teachings on discipline and hard work were not. From public schools, she took her college education to the prestigious Ivy League.
In 1997 she received her bachelor’s degree from Harvard University. Three years later, in 2000, Clarke graduated from Columbia University with a Juris Doctorate.
Her first job as a new attorney was as a federal attorney with the Justice Department, where she worked on voting rights, hate crimes, and human trafficking cases. In 2006 she joined the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, by which time New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman appointed her director of the state’s Civil Rights Bureau. In that state role, Clarke led enforcement efforts in the areas of criminal justice, voting rights, and fair lending. Housing discrimination, disability rights, reproductive access and LGBTQ rights.
As her legal acumen grew, so did the number of honors she received: the 2010 Paul Robeson Distinguished Alumni Award from Columbia Law School; 2011 National Bar Association Top 40 Under 40s; the 2012 Best Brief Award for the 2012 term of the Supreme Court from the National Association of Attorneys General; and the New York Law Journal’s 2015 Rising Stars.
Months later, the August 2016 issue of the American Bar Association (ABA) Journal included a Q&A interview with Ms. Clarke. In part, she thought about her childhood and how it influenced her career goals.
“I’ve seen what it’s like to be underprivileged, and I’ve also seen very privileged situations. I feel a deep sense of responsibility to use the opportunities given to me to help those who are less fortunate. We live in a nation that is divided according to race and class. I have a personal sense of what life is like on both sides of this divide, and I want to find out how we can fill some of these gaps and level the playing field. “
At the April 14 Senate Judicial Committee hearing on her appointment, Clarke recalled her legal career and the principles that guided her work.
“I began my legal career traveling across the country to communities like Tensas Parish, Louisiana and Clarksdale, Mississippi,” said Clarke. “I learned how to become an attorney’s attorney – focus on the rule of law and let the facts go where they want.
“As I left the DOJ,” she continued, “I took the words of the late Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall as a guideline: ‘Wherever you see injustice or inequality or injustice, speak up, for this is your country. This is your democracy. Do it. Protect it. Pass on.’ That’s exactly what I’ve tried every step of my career. “
With her confirmation, Ms. Clarke will return to the Justice Department at a time when the agency is once again focusing on just serving the nation as a whole. Since the beginning of this year, a number of measures reflect the renewed commitment of the agency for civil rights. Here are some examples:
In February of that year, and following an FBI investigation, a Michigan man was charged with hate crimes after exposing black teenagers to racist slurs and guns for using a public beach.
In March, two former Louisiana law enforcement officers were convicted of their roles in covering up the 2014 death of a prisoner in the state’s St. Bernard Parish after failing to receive medical treatment while in detention.
In April, the DOJ and the city of West Monroe, Louisiana reached an agreement following a lawsuit allegedly violating the voting rights law. Although nearly a third of the city was black, the general election of city councils meant that all were white local officials. With the approval decree, the method of electing lay judges is changed to a combination of individual district representatives and other representatives elected at large.
On May 7, the DOJ issued a three-count indictment against four Minneapolis police officers on charges of the death of George Floyd. In addition, convicted former officer Derek Chauvin is charged with two counts for his 2017 actions against a 14-year-old man. In the indictment, Chauvin is accused of holding his knee by the youth’s neck and upper back and using a flashlight as a weapon.
In addition, the DOJ is currently investigating police practices in both Louisville and Minneapolis. Readers may recall that Breonna Taylor was killed without knocking at her Louisville home during a nighttime police entry.
“Our nation is a healthier place when we respect the rights of all communities,” Ms. Clarke said in her confirmation hearing. “In every role I’ve held, I’ve worked with and for people of all backgrounds… I’ve listened carefully to all sides of the debate regardless of political affiliation. There is no substitute for listening and learning in this work and I promise you that I will put that into the role if it is validated. “
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