Kristen Clarke, President Biden’s nominee to head the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, finds herself in the middle of a tiresome rerun of an all-too-familiar Republican smear campaign against women of color. It goes like this: Once a nominee is announced, Republicans search for some statement from her to twist and blow up out of proportion. They then throw around terms such as “radical” or “racist” to slander her. (This routine comes from a party that is committed to anti-voting legislation and that does not blink when Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) says white supremacist rioters did not scare him because they are patriots, but Black Lives Matter demonstrators do.)

For Clarke, the right-wing outrage machine had to go back to her college days. When she was a 19-year-old sophomore at Harvard University in 1994, “The Bell Curve” was published and sparked a furious debate over race and IQ. Black students at Harvard, feeling besieged and smeared, organized rallies, wrote letters and held talks to debunk a race-based theory of intelligence. Tony Martin, a Black Wellesley College professor, offered to come speak at Harvard. Clarke, not aware he had recently written an anti-Semitic book, accepted the invitation as president of the Black Students Association.

When a furor erupted over The Bell Curve, she and another student, Victoria Kennedy, wrote a letter to the Harvard Crimson attempting, in Jonathan Swift fashion, to mock race-based claims to superiority. After listing some obviously baseless theories that Black people are superior to Whites, she explained, “We can readily admit that an abused child is less likely to achieve academically than a child that has grown up in a supportive atmosphere.” She added, “Black children, whether rich or poor, grow up with an added abuse which white children never have to face. Imagine the message that misguided information like The Bell Curve would send to a Black child who is trying to find her place in school. It’s degrading, belittling and outrageously false.”

Right-wing groups pillorying Clarke now take the parody in her 1994 letter as a true expression of her views and fail to cite the complete Crimson letter, which goes on to distinguish the parody from the authors’ actual views. The Crimson made this clear in its reporting on the controversy in 1994: “Their own views on the book, Clarke and Kennedy said, are contained in the letter’s last few paragraphs. ‘It seems that whites have grown tired of hearing about racism,’ [Clarke and Kennedy] write. ‘So some have turned to measures such as The Bell Curve to [relieve] themselves of blame.’"

Conservative smear artists also ignore a letter sent to the Crimson at the time by Elie G. Kaunfer, chair of the coordinating council of the Harvard-Radcliffe Hillel, the school’s Jewish student organization. “I took the time to talk to Clarke and realized that she did not share those views,” Kaunfer wrote. “The point of Clarke’s letter, as explained to me, seemed to be that racist opinions of white Harvard ‘scholars’ are publicly debated while racist opinions of Black ‘scholars’ are categorically rejected.” The letter also noted that Clarke’s critics “did not take the time to understand that Clarke is not a racist. In fact, the news story which ran on the same day as Clarke’s letter said. ‘Clarke … said those views are not offered as her own.’”

I also spoke to former Harvard student Michael Goldenpine, a Hillel student leader who ran an interfaith committee at the time and was a representative to the minority student alliance. He said the Black Students Association did not go looking for a controversial speaker to debunk “The Bell Curve.” He recalled, “Tony Martin invited himself.” In contrast to earlier years at Harvard in which there had been a complete breakdown in relations between the Jewish and Black communities on campus, Goldenpine recalls that under Clarke, the BSA agreed to meet soon after Martin spoke. Goldenpine recalled, “She participated. She committed to build the relationship.” He told me, “We were listened to. That doesn’t happen without her leadership.” As for the letter to the Crimson, Goldenpine says, “I don’t believe Kristen Clarke was advocating Black supremacy any more than I believe Jonathan Swift was advocating eating Irish babies.”

These contemporaneous recollections support Clarke’s comments to the Forward in January. “Giving someone like [Martin] a platform, it’s not something I would do again,” Clarke said. The Forward’s report continued:

Clarke, who is president of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, previously headed the civil rights bureau at the New York Attorney General’s office, under Eric Schneiderman.
Clarke noted that during her tenure there 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.
“Fighting antisemitism, racism, white supremacy and all forms of bias are principles and values that have animated my career every step of the way,” she said.

As for the Crimson letter about “The Bell Curve,” The Forward reports that Clarke said the book was “generating wide acclaim for its racist views” and that the intention of the letter’s absurd claims was to “hold up a mirror to reflect how reprehensible the premise of Black inferiority was set.” She reiterated, just as the Jewish students at the time understood, “It was meant to express an equally absurd point of view — fighting one ridiculous absurd racist theory with another ridiculous absurd theory.”

This may be the lamest right-wing smear campaigns to date. Considering their risible claims of racism all occurred when Clarke was a teenager, it is questionable any of it is relevant. What is outrageous is that her actions and words are being taken out of context and distorted, that her work with the Jewish community is ignored and that false charges of anti-Semitism are used to bring down an eminently qualified woman. Perhaps Republicans should focus on the real racism in their own midst — starting with censuring Johnson and ending their efforts to disenfranchise Black voters.

Post Senior Producer Kate Woodsome talks to Americans who voted for Trump, or simply don't feel like denouncing him, about why they feel wrongly scorned. (Kate Woodsome, Joy Yi/The Washington Post)

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