Attorney General nominee Merrick Garland defended Kristen Clarke, the attorney tapped to lead the Justice Department’s civil rights division, during a heated exchange with Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, at his confirmation hearing on Monday.
Clarke, Biden’s nominee to serve as assistant attorney general for civil rights, drew scrutiny in recent weeks over a resurfaced 1994 letter she co-authored to the Harvard Crimson. Clarke presented the letter as a denouncement of findings in the controversial book called "The Bell Curve," which suggested that intelligence was linked to genetics and environmental factors.
In the letter, Clarke wrote, among other things that "Black infants sit, stand, crawl and walk sooner than whites" and "Melanin endows Blacks with greater mental, physical and spiritual abilities." While Clarke has maintained that the intent of her letter was misinterpreted, critics, including Lee, have questioned her fitness to hold office in the DOJ.
Lee referenced the situation in a question to Garland, kicking off a tense exchange.
"Would an individual’s past statements as an adult declaring that one racial group is superior to another, would statements like that be relevant to an evaluation of whether such a person should be put in charge of running the Department of Justice’s civil rights division?" Lee asked the attorney general nominee.
"I’ve read, in the last few days, these allegations about Kristen Clarke, who I’ve also gotten to know, who I also trust, who I believe is a person of integrity, whose views about the civil rights division I have discussed with her and they are in line with my own," Garland said in response. "I have every reason to want her. She is an experienced former line prosecutor of hate crimes and we need somebody like that," Garland said before being interrupted by Lee.
"I’m not asking about her as a person, I’m asking about the statement," Lee said.
"All I can tell you is that I’ve had many conversations with her about her views about the civil rights division, about what type of matters she would investigate," Garland said.
"What about anti-Semitic comments. Would those be relevant?" Lee said.
Garland, who earlier detailed his own family’s experiences with anti-Semitism, grew visibly angry following that question.
"You know my views on anti-Semitism. No one needs to question those," Garland said. "I’m a pretty good judge of what an anti-Semite is and I do not believe that she is an anti-Semite and I do not believe that she is discriminatory in any sense."
Earlier this year, Forward asked Clarke to explain her decision to write the letter, as well as her decision, while serving as president of Harvard’s Black Students Association, to host Professor Tony Martin, who later made anti-Semitic remarks.
In response, Clarke said the letter was in response to "The Bell Curve, which was "generating wide acclaim for its racist views." She said her decision to start the letter "with an absurd claim that Black people are superior based on the melanin in their skin" was to "hold up a mirror to reflect how reprehensible the premise of black inferiority was set."
"It was meant to express an equally absurd point of view — fighting one ridiculous absurd racist theory with another ridiculous absurd theory," Clarke said, "and the goal was all about [exposing] the ugly racist underpinnings of the Bell Curve theory."
Clarke said it was a "mistake" to host Martin and said she "unequivocally denounce[s] anti-Semitism."
Prior to her nomination, Clarke served as president of the advocacy group Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. She also served as head of the civil rights division under former New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman.
As head of the DOJ’s civil rights division, Clarke would lead efforts to pursue police reform and other efforts to combat systemic racism. Biden has pledged to make civil rights reform a priority in his administration.
Clarke could face scrutiny during her own confirmation hearing regarding her stance on police reform. In a column for Newsweek last year, she called for a "strategic" effort to defund police in favor of other community programs. Calls to defund the police have roiled Republican lawmakers in recent months.