Kristen Clarke, Joe Biden’s nominee to lead the Justice Department’s civil rights division, faced several rounds of Republican interrogation ahead of her Senate confirmation, as GOP lawmakers probed her past statements on police violence and whether she supports “defunding” law enforcement.
At one point, Republican Senator John Cornyn asked Ms Clarke whether she actually believed “African Americans are genetically superior to caucasians” in response to a satirical column criticising a controversial book on race theory and genetics.
“Maybe there’s a misprint – maybe you can clear it up for me,” he asked. “You seem to argue that African Americans were genetically superior to caucasians. Is that correct?”
“No, senator,” she said. “I believe you’re referring to an op-ed that I wrote at the age of 19 about The Bell Curve Theory, a racist book that equated DNA with genetics and race. As a Black student at Harvard [University] at that time, we took grave offence to this book.”
She said the column sought to “hold up a mirror – put one racist theory alongside another, to challenge people as to why we were unwilling to wholly reject the racist theory that defined the Bell Curve book.”
“So this was satire?” Mr Cornyn responded.
Ms Clarke, if confirmed for the role, would be the first woman and the first Black woman to lead the division since its creation in 1957.
Her appointment follows a rise in hate crimes, threats to voting rights and federal law enforcement warnings about the rise in racist violence, white supremacism and domestic terror plots – all against a backdrop of the GOP’s persistent culture wars.
Ms Clarke – a longtime civil rights advocate – emerged as a frequent critic of the Trump administration as head of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which sued the former president over challenges to voting rights, immigration, the use of force against protesters outside the White House, and changes to the US Census.
While defending results in the wake of the 2020 presidential election that the former president sought to overturn with the false narrative of a “stolen” election, she was repeatedly threatened with racist attacks by his supporters.
In 2019, she won a lawsuit against a neo-Nazi who incited a “troll storm” against the first Black female student body president of American University.
Right-wing lawmakers fear her appointment to the Justice Department, along with former civil rights lawyer Vanita Gupta, whose appointment is also pending Senate confirmation, will upend American policing and strengthen civil rights and voter protections that Republicans across the US have sought to undo.
But as the recent police killing of another unarmed Black American revives nationwide debate over the future of policing, Ms Clarke told lawmakers that racial equity will remain a top priority within her agency.
In her opening statement, she said she looks to her 16-year-old son to affirm her commitment “to the promise of working every day to build a world of equal opportunity for all.”
“A world where no 16-year-old is the target of hateful language,” she said. “A world where no young man is racially profiled. I dream of a world that values his mind, his heart … and does not push him aside because of the colour of his skin. I dream of that for every child in America.”
Senate Republicans on Wednesday sought to undermine her credibility, pointing to her statements surrounding “defund the police” debates, including an op-ed in which she advocated for funding to be re-allocated.
She said the headline did not accurately reflect what she wrote. In the op-ed, she said she advocates “defunding policing operations that have made African Americans more vulnerable to police violence and contributed to mass incarceration, while investing more in programmes and policies that address critical community needs.”
The Justice Department’s civil rights division does not dictate police budgets.
After Democratic Senator Chris Coons asked if police funding decisions were up to her, she said: “If I could put my thumb on the scale, it would be on the side of more resources.”
Senator Cotton also repeatedly asked whether she believed police officers who killed Black Americans in several high-profile cases were “justified” in their response, seeking a “yes or no” answer.
Ms Clarke said “in general, there is a greater need for police accountability” and that “there is a bipartisan agreement on this issue” before Mr Cotton stopped her.
After chairman Dick Durbin told Mr Cotton to allow Ms Clarke to answer, Mr Cotton snapped, saying, “Can you stop your pattern of interrupting me repeatedly?”