Perhaps the preeminent and fastest-growing fault line in American politics right now is on racism. Democrats have in recent years shed much of their previous caution in invoking it, citing systemic racism as the cause of many of society’s ills — most notably in criminal justice. The pushback from much of the right has been just as forceful, with conservatives accusing Democrats of blaming everything on racism and using it as a cudgel.

Those increasing tensions collided in a big way Wednesday at a hearing for Kristen Clarke, a top nominee to serve in the Biden administration’s Justice Department.

Clarke is hardly the first Democratic nominee to have her past comments on racism in America brought to the fore in a confirmation hearing. That’s particularly the case when it comes to nominees with a history in civil rights law, as Clarke has. But Republicans’ line of questioning on Clarke was especially pointed, with one exchange standing out.

While questioning Clarke, Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) cited not the idea that Clarke applies the prism of racism to too many things — but that she might actually think Black people are “genetically superior.”

The crux of Cornyn’s argument? Clarke had written a letter to Harvard’s student newspaper in 1994 with another student that ran through theories for why that could conceivably be the case. Among the arguments cited by Clarke: that Black children crawl and walk faster than other children, and that higher levels of melanin provide “greater mental, physical and spiritual abilities.”

“Maybe there’s a misprint. Maybe you can clear it up for me,” Cornyn said. “You seem to argue that African Americans were genetically superior to Caucasians. Is that correct?”

In fact, Clarke has explained this before — and actually did so as far back as the same day her letter was published. She said back then that these views were not her own and that she was being provocative.

Her letter was in response to controversy over “The Bell Curve,” a book exploring connections between race and IQ that has been labeled by many, both then and now, as being racist or at least feeding racist narratives. Black student groups at Harvard organized demonstrations, in which Clarke, as head of the Black Students Association, was heavily involved.

“What I was seeking to do was to hold up a mirror and 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,” Clarke said.

Clarke noted in her testimony that she explained this to another student in real time. That student later wrote another piece for the Harvard Crimson, stating that “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.”

That explanation hasn’t prevented this from hanging over Clarke’s nomination, with Fox News host Tucker Carlson in particular running an inordinate number of segments on her — given the position for which she’s nominated — and highlighting Clarke’s 1994 piece, calling her words “shocking.” “Kristen Clarke is getting that job, and Kristen Clarke once wrote that African Americans were genetically superior to other races,” Carlson said.

Carlson added at another point: “In a sane country, Kristen Clarke should be under investigation by the civil rights division, not running it.”

Clarke has, in many ways, run into the same problem many nominees before her have: saying things as a college student that they might have been more judicious about as an older adult, and perhaps not being clear enough. Even at the time, Clarke’s meaning wasn’t readily apparent to some of those reviewing her words. Her explanation to the other student came after the staff of the Crimson wrote an op-ed calling upon her to retract her comments. Even the student she explained it to, Elie G. Kaunfer, a leader of a campus Jewish group, reflected that “I wish Clarke had made this reasoning clear to The Crimson from the start,” but she faulted those who called for the retraction for not seeking a fuller explanation.

Given that, one could argue that Clarke might have believed these things but then backed off them when they sparked a backlash and the call for a retraction. But actually, even the same day her op-ed was published — Oct. 28, 1994 — it was reported in the same newspaper that Clarke said she was indeed being provocative. “This information is not necessarily something we believe,” she said while describing the letter, “but some information that we think those pursuing a true understanding of the Bell Curve theory should either address, ignore or refute.”

It’s perhaps something that someone like Clarke should address on the record as part of a confirmation hearing, given that it’s out there and the sentiments contained in the letter are indeed inflammatory. But her claim that she was being intentionally provocative has now been confirmed both contemporaneously and under oath. And Cornyn threw this out there as if that explanation was somehow a mystery to him and that he truly believed she might have been arguing that Black people were genetically superior. He even began his question with a lengthy citation of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, in which King said he dreamed of a day in which his children would “not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

It’s the kind of thing that, at the very least, would seem to have warranted some more research and probing if you want to raise it. Instead, it was effectively copy-and-pasted from the likes of Carlson’s show and just as quickly abandoned.