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Kristen Clarke, women of color nominees, and the hurdles they face

President Biden has nominated people with a diversity of professional, educational, and experiential backgrounds to serve in his cabinet and in other key agency positions. Many of these nominees are women of color, an exciting advancement and one that’s long overdue. Yet the experience many of these particular nominees are facing during their confirmation process is anything but exciting. In fact, time and time again these incredibly qualified women of color  are asked to meet a higher standard than their white, male counterparts. The attacks on and expectations of these extraordinary nominees is well, extraordinary. 

Take Kristen Clarke, for example. Nominated to lead the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice, Clarke is without a doubt the perfect candidate for this position. Per a quote read by Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) at Clarke’s Senate Judiciary Committee markup, “If you were inventing a nominee from scratch, you would come up with Kristen.” Indeed, her record is long and impressive: Clarke is a life-long civil servant who has more than 20 years of experience pursuing equal justice under the law. She might just be the most qualified of any nominee put forward for this position. From her time at the Department of Justice earlier in her career, to NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, to the New York State Attorney General’s office, to her most recent position at the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, Clarke has led broad civil rights enforcement, addressed white supremacy and hate violence, advanced justice for religious minorities and other vulnerable communities, and ensured the sacred right to vote. Kristen Clarke is supported by organizations across the ideological spectrum, including many law enforcement groups and former leaders from Republican administrations. 

So, it was baffling that at her Senate Judiciary Committee vote it wasn’t her work that was the issue, because there were no questions about her qualifications for the position — instead it was whether Republican senators believed her answers when questioned under oath at her hearing. For example, Senator Cornyn (R-TX) in particular, felt that the fact that Clarke was nominated in the same breath as Vanita Gupta made her nomination a bridge too far, given Gupta’s work in Texas in the ‘90’s to clear 38 people wrongly convicted when Cornyn was the Attorney General. Like Gupta, Kristen Clarke is exactly what we need at this moment in time. And like Gupta, the support for her nomination is overwhelming.

Yet Vanita Gupta also had an arduous journey to confirmation despite her exceptional qualifications and support from the right and the left. Why? As she proceeded through the process with Lisa Monaco, nominated for a higher position at the Justice Department, Gupta received far more questions in their joint hearing. The scrutiny to which she was subjected — someone who has spent her career successfully fighting for greater equity in our criminal legal system and advancing the rights and dignity of every person in America — is unexplainable. Unless you guessed that as a woman of color, Gupta had a higher bar to meet. 

But it doesn’t end there either. Take a look at the nominations of Julie Su to head the Labor Department, Rep. Deb Haaland to lead the Interior Department, and Neera Tanden to direct the Office of Management and Budget. Each of these women were similarly held under a giant microscope. As our colleague, Theresa Lau at National Women’s Law Center, offered in a piece about Kristen Clarke, we believe it is a broader “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).” While it shouldn’t be this difficult for qualified nominees, here we are, four months into the confirmation process and well aware of the pattern.

Women of color comprise about 20% of the population yet have not been well represented in the highest echelons of government — until now. For our government to work for everyone, it must be truly representative of the people. Which is why our two organizations, In Our Own Voice: National Black Women’s Reproductive Justice Agenda and National Council of Jewish Women, have joined forces on behalf of Kristen Clarke, putting our respective constituencies behind her nomination and confirmation. Let us be clear: Clarke has the support of Black women and Jewish women, including Jewish women of color. Her lived experience coupled with her professional background and qualifications are exactly why we need Clarke enforcing our nation’s civil rights laws. And no amount of sexist or racist hurdles will stop the inevitable from happening: confirmation of Kristen Clarke to the Department of Justice.

Our networks know that confirming Clarke to the Justice Department will ensure our civil rights laws will be used — in her words — “to improve lives, promote justice, and right wrongs.” As we face unprecedented health and economic disparities due to the pandemic, and as we begin to address our systems of oppression following the murder of George Floyd, the Senate’s confirmation of Kristen Clarke will help bring America one step closer to justice for all. 

Let your Senators know that you support the confirmation of Kristen Clarke to lead the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice!

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