The incoming Democratic leader of the Senate Judiciary Committee is standing by President Biden’s nominee to fill the key spot atop the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division amid controversy over a handful of past comments from the nominee, Kristen Clarke.
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said in a statement that Clarke will help renew the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division’s commitment to “equal justice under the law.”
Likely to become central in the debate over her nomination is a 1994 letter to the editor she wrote to The Harvard Crimson denouncing a controversial book called “The Bell Curve,” which suggested that genetics and intelligence may be linked.
Responding to “those who defend ‘The Bell Curve,'” Clarke co-authored a letter which, among other things said that “Black infants sit, stand, crawl and walk sooner than whites… human mental processes are controlled by melanin – that same chemical which gives Blacks their superior physical and mental abilities” and that “Melanin endows Blacks with greater mental, physical and spiritual abilities.”
Clarke in a subsequent interview with the student paper said, “The information [contained in the letter] is not necessarily something we believe” and also addressed the comments in a recent interview with Forward.
She told Forward that “The Bell Curve” was “generating wide acclaim for its racist views” and that her letter aimed to “hold up a mirror to reflect how reprehensible the premise of Black inferiority was set” using “an absurd claim that Black people are superior based on the melanin in their skin.”
“It was meant to express an equally absurd point of view – fighting one ridiculous absurd racist theory with another ridiculous absurd theory,” she said.
Durbin in a statement to Fox News emphasized his support for Clarke and confidence that Clark can “revitalize” the Civil Rights Division.
“While Donald Trump was disrespecting the Constitution, undermining democratic institutions, spreading hate, and inciting insurrection, he also reduced the DOJ Civil Rights Division to a shell of its former self,” Durbin said in a statement to Fox News. “Kristen Clarke is a Justice Department veteran who has the skills, experience and tenacity to revitalize the Civil Rights Division and renew its commitment to protecting civil rights and ensuring equal justice under the law.”
Clarke’s hearing is likely a long way off. The Senate has a number of Biden Cabinet nominees left to confirm – including Judge Merrick Garland, who is Biden’s nominee to lead the Justice Department as attorney general.
And next week everything in the Senate will grind to a halt once the impeachment trial of former President Trump starts in earnest. Besides that, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., still haven’t finalized a Senate organizing resolution, meaning that Durbin isn’t even technically the chairman of the Judiciary Committee yet.
But Clarke’s hearing is likely to become contentious over her Harvard letter to the editor and other elements of her history.
Among those will likely be the fact that Clarke hosted Professor Tony Martin, who had a history of anti-Semitism, to speak at Harvard when she was the president of the Black Students Association. The event drew condemnation from the Harvard chapter of Hillel – a Jewish students’ organization.
“We are shocked and saddened by the choice of this divisive speaker,” a letter from Hillel leaders reads, according to The Harvard Crimson. Clarke, meanwhile, defended Martin after the event.
To Forward, Clarke last month said she regretted inviting Martin to campus.
“Giving someone like him a platform, it’s not something I would do again,” she told Forward. “I unequivocally denounce anti-Semitism.”
In more recent controversies, Clarke slammed former Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ 2018 Religious Liberty Task Force, saying that it would “make it easier for people to use religion to mask their discriminatory goals,” and supported “strategic” police defunding in a Newsweek op-ed last year.
“I advocate for defunding policing operations that have made African Americans more vulnerable to police violence and contributed to mass incarceration, while investing more in programs and policies that address critical community needs,” she wrote. “We must invest less in police and more in social workers… social supports in our schools… and more in mental health aid.”
That stance differs from what Biden advocated on the campaign trail – that police budgets should be increased so they have the resources to build better community relationships and reduce the need for them to use violence.
“Let’s get the facts straight, I not only don’t want to defund the police. I want to add $300 million to their local budgets to deal with community policing to get police and communities back together again,” Biden told KDKA in Pittsburgh in August.
The White House did not respond to a request for comment asking it to address Clarke’s comments both while at Harvard and her more recent comments on the Religious Liberty Task Force and police defunding.