Jamaican-American Kristen Clarke Becomes First Black Woman to Lead DOJ Civil Rights Division

Susan Walsh / AP file

On May 25, the U.S Senate confirmed the appointment of Jamaican-America Kristen Clarke to the justice department, making her the first Black woman to lead the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights division.

The vote was 51-48 with Sen. Susan Collins as the only Republican voting for her confirmation. Clarke’s confirmation breaks barriers in a department that was established in 1957 and coincided with the one-year anniversary of the death of George Floyd.

Clarke, the daughter of Jamaican immigrants, joins the ranks of Susan Rice and Vice President Kamala Harris as members of the Biden- Harris administration of Jamaican heritage.

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She was nominated by President Joe Biden to serve as Assistant Attorney General for the division. While accepting Biden’s nomination on January 7, Clarke thanked her Jamaican parents for teaching her the principles of hard work and respect as a child.

“Growing up in Brooklyn, New York, my parents instilled in my an unrelenting belief in the principle of hard work and respect for the dignity and humanity of all people. I am deeply thankful for the trail that my parents blazed and I can only imagine the pride they are feeling as I take on the challenging new opportunity.” She also thanked her partner, Mustafa and made mention of her teenage son.

Clarke, a veteran of the Department of Justice, started her career in civil rights as a career attorney in the Civil Rights Division at the Department of Justice where she handled cases of police misconduct, hate crimes, human trafficking, voting rights, and redistricting cases.

A statement from the White House read that “she has been a champion of systemic equity and equal justice throughout her career.”

Kristen Clarke was born in Brooklyn, New York. Her parents migrated from Jamaica to the United States just a few years before she was born in 1975.

She has said that she grew up in a household that was “about discipline, working hard in school and about making the most of every opportunity.”

Clarke was a member of Prep for Prep, a non-profit organization that looks to support students of color in accessing private school education. She attended Choate Rosemary Hall, where she was the only girl to join the boy’s wrestling squad.

She earned her Bachelor of Arts degree from Harvard University and a Juris Doctor from Columbia Law School in 2000.

After graduating she worked as a trial attorney in the United States Department of Justice Civil Rights Division. In this capacity, she served as a federal prosecutor and worked on voting rights, hate crimes and human trafficking cases.

In 2006, Clarke joined the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, where she co-led the political participation group and focused on election law reform. In 2011, she was appointed Director of the Civil Rights bureau of then Attorney General of New York, Eric Schneiderman, where she led initiatives on criminal justice issues and housing discrimination. Under her initiative, the bureau reached agreements with retailers on racial profiling of their customers, police departments on policy reformer and with school districts on the school-to-prison pipeline.

In 2015, Clarke was appointed president and Executive Director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. One of her first roles was leading Election Protection, a voter protection coalition. She became well known for her work combating the discrimination faced by marginalized communities.

In 2019, Clarke represented Taylor Dumpson, the first African-American woman student body President of American University, in her lawsuit against Andrew Anglin, who placed bananas around campus. He then directed his followers to harass her on social media, a so-called “troll storm”. Clarke successfully fought for the United States District Court for the District of Columbia to recognize that hateful online trolling can interfere with access to public accommodation, as well as securing damages and a restraining order.

She is currently the president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

Kristen Clarke was sworn in Tuesday, May 25th, by Jamaican-American Vice President Kamala Harris, whose office called Clarke “a tireless champion of equal justice”.