Kristen Clarke’s nomination as Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights isn’t in real trouble yet. But the prominent civil-rights lawyer isn’t taking any chances. After revelations about her racist and anti-Semitic past surfaced this week, she’s finally broken her silence about the issue in the attempt to do some damage control. The question now is whether that is enough to ensure that Senate Democrats don’t break ranks and tell the incoming administration to look elsewhere for the person slated to be the nation’s civil-rights watchdog.
As head of the left-leaning Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights, Clarke reflects the Democratic base’s mindset about the importance of racial quotas, critical race theory and the need for radical change with respect to law enforcement. And her glittering résumé gives her the qualifications that ought to make for smooth sailing in a confirmation process in a Senate where Vice President-elect Kamala Harris gives the Democrats a razor-thin majority.
But as I wrote yesterday, for the first time in her life, Clarke is being asked to account for the things she did and wrote while an undergraduate at Harvard University. While president of the Black Students Association, she wrote a published letter to the editor of The Harvard Crimson in which she declared her support for theories that claimed African-Americans were superior to whites, including the bizarre assertion that the amount of melanin a person had would account for differences in cognitive abilities.
A month later, she invited a prominent Afrocentric Jew-hater, Wellesley Professor Tony Martin, to speak at Harvard and then defended him in a Crimson article in which she claimed his anti-Semitic libels were “indisputable fact.”
There can be no doubt that if Clarke was not a minority and had authored a defense of a white-supremacist belief—or had invited and endorsed a well-known racist—that would be the end of any talk of her being given a high-ranking government post, even if it had happened 27 years ago. Such a nomination would be withdrawn immediately.
However, the good news for Clarke is that to date, mainstream media outlets like The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN and MSNBC have not reported a word about any of it, though it was discussed on Fox News as well as JNS. But she can’t count on that remaining the situation indefinitely, and in order to forestall any further questions, she decided to give an exclusive interview to a friendly outlet to address the issue. The left-wing Forward newspaper fit that bill.
Clarke’s attempt to put out the fire involved both expressing regret and providing an explanation that attempted to explain the otherwise inexplicable.
According to Clarke, her Crimson paean to Afrocentric race theory about black racial superiority wasn’t meant to be taken seriously. It was, instead, a parody that was intended to be read as exposing the absurdity of author Charles Murray’s claims in his book The Bell Curve, in which he claimed that research showed differences in intelligence between the races.
Perhaps that is indeed what she meant. Although if that was the case, she did an extremely poor job of making such an argument since it reads as a straight-forward defense of crackpot race theories that are promoted by groups like the Nation of Islam and its notorious leader, Louis Farrakhan.
As for her invitation and defense of Martin, Clarke is prepared to admit that she was wrong, even though the words “apologize” or any acknowledgment of the impact of her facilitating the appearance of a vocal anti-Semite on Jewish students are absent from the published version of the interview. But she did say that it “was a mistake to accept his offer to come and to defend him. … Giving someone like him a platform, it’s not something I would do again.”
That done, Clarke then went on to tout her bona fides as an opponent of anti-Semitism, which she says she opposes “100%. I unequivocally denounce anti-semitism.” To back up that claim, she pointed out while working for the New York Attorney General’s office that “she had advanced a religious-rights initiative that she said promoted religious accommodation, combated religious discrimination and ensured that Jewish employees were given flexibility so that they could observe the Sabbath.”
That’s nice to hear but hardly an act of courage. Accommodating religious observance, combating discrimination and allowing employees to observe the Sabbath wasn’t optional for someone in that position. It was required by law and had she not done so, she would have been sued and almost certainly fired.
But to The Forward’s credit, their reporter asked about another example of her questionable devotion to the principles of equality. It turns out that when the leaders of the Women’s March—a prominent anti-Trump protest movement that organized the huge counter-demonstration that sought to eclipse the presidential inauguration in January 2017—were called out for their anti-Semitism and support for extremism, Clarke was not among those seeking to clean house at the group.
To the contrary, Clarke signed a letter defending Tamika Mallory, the president of the Women’s March. Mallory had marginalized and then excluded Jews from the group’s leadership, and had made it clear she felt they—and anyone who supported the State of Israel—had no place in the movement. What’s more, Mallory was a vocal supporter of Farrakhan and appeared at a Nation of Islam gathering and cheered the hatemonger.
Rather than make amends for her stand in favor of Mallory, Clarke doubled down on it telling the newspaper, “The marginalization of women of color is a threat to disrupt democracy, and what led me to join that letter was a grave concern about seeing another woman of color marginalized and silenced. Let me be clear, I denounce anti-Semitism wherever and whenever it shows up.”
But the first part of that statement gives the lie to the last part. Given an opportunity to “denounce anti-Semitism,” Clarke chose not to since it was less important than defending “women of color,” even if they were guilty of promoting hate.
This means the person that Biden is trusting with the nation’s civil-rights policy thinks anti-Semitism is bad unless it involves people “of color,” who are political allies. Mallory was forced out of the Women’s March over her anti-Semitism. She is now heading a different group called Until Freedom, which has taken the lead in promoting the case of Breonna Taylor, an African-American woman killed during a police raid in her Louisville home. Thus, as a prominent leader in the Black Lives Matter movement, Clarke regards Mallory as exempt from scrutiny.
Clarke will likely be grilled about her record of hate and support for those who promote hate—both when a student and at present—by Republicans during her Senate confirmation hearing. If Democrats stand by her, she may scrape through. That will be made easier if the mainstream press continues to be silent about her record.
It will also depend, however, on whether liberal Jewish groups like the Anti-Defamation League, which has taken on the role of an auxiliary for the Democratic Party rather than an agency dedicated to fighting anti-Semitism as it was intended to be, also remains mum, as it has done since the news about her past broke.
The longer this controversy goes on, the more Kristen Clarke’s nomination will become a crucial test case for Biden, the Democrats and the liberal Jewish organizations that are cheerleading for the new administration. If they fail to reject a person who has condoned anti-Semitism, it will be an alarming indication that Jew-hatred is no longer a disqualifying factor for high office. Anyone who cares about confronting hatred—Democrat or Republican, Jew or non-Jew—must insist that this nomination be withdrawn immediately.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.