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Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke Delivers Remarks at the National Action Network Annual Convention’s Women’s Empowerment Luncheon


New York, NY
United States

Remarks as Prepared

Thank you, for that kind introduction and for the invitation to speak here this afternoon. It is always wonderful to be back in my hometown with the National Action Network.

I’m particularly honored to be together during this historic week when the first Black woman in American history is expected be confirmed to the United States Supreme Court.

Seeing Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson become Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson is a moment I hope we all savor. Of course, representation alone is never sufficient to make progress. But it is always, always necessary.

As the first Senate-confirmed Black woman to lead the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division, I know that all too well. Each step along my journey was paved by the women – especially the Black women – who came before me.

None of us got where we are today on our own. I know I didn’t. I stand on the shoulders of giants. One of those giants is a woman named Constance Baker Motley, a key strategist of the Civil Rights Movement and the first Black woman to serve as a federal judge.

I think about Judge Motley a lot because the two of us have a lot in common. We’re both children of Caribbean immigrants. We both grew up in the Northeast. We both worked for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. But there is one way in which our lives were profoundly different. I was fortunate enough to grow up in a time when I could look up to a woman like Judge Motley. I could see the path she blazed and know that I could do that, too.

Judge Motley may not have the name recognition of other civil rights leaders, but her work was critical. She helped lead the fight to desegregate colleges, public schools, and public amenities; to ensure equal pay for Black teachers; to include Black people in juries; and to protect all Americans’ right to peacefully protest.

For generations, Black women like Judge Motley have been the backbone of the movement for justice. I work hard every day to uphold that legacy at the Department of Justice.

And let me tell you, the threats to our basic constitutional rights are real and they are urgent. We are at a critical moment. As a mother, I see the future of America through the eyes of my son. And, honestly, I am at times worried.

Will he have full and equal access to the extraordinary opportunities of American life? Will he be able to embrace those opportunities in safety and dignity? Will all of America's children be able to do the same?

I keep those questions close to my heart. There is no doubt that we are facing profound challenges in our nation. But we are facing them together.

In the summer of 2020, millions of Americans of all ages, races and creeds took to the streets to demand justice – justice for George Floyd, yes, but also to build a new foundation of racial justice in America. I am and never have been under any illusion that America has struggled to live up to the promise of her ideals. But it is up to all of us to push this nation closer to those ideals – without limit or fear.

For me, that work begins with voting rights. I came up as a voting rights attorney. That’s been my life’s work. And I feel privileged and humbled to be heading the Civil Rights Division at this moment of profound challenge for our democracy.

In his famous “Give us the ballot” speech, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. acknowledged that voting alone isn’t enough – that we must use the power of the ballot to spark real change. But he also knew that without that power to vote, justice is impossible.

The Department of Justice is committed to making sure that all eligible voters can cast a vote; that all lawful votes are counted; and that every voter has access to accurate election information. We have taken action across the country and we will not stop doing all that we can to safeguard the right to vote.

The division also recently issued significant guidance documents, which provide our formal legal interpretation of certain voting rights laws. One provides guidance on federal laws that affect methods of voting, including early voting and voting by mail, and last month, we released guidance that helps election officials ensure that ballot drop boxes are accessible to voters with disabilities. Another lays out the protections against racial vote dilution under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act that apply nationwide to the redistricting cycle that is now underway.

The Department of Justice will use all the tools it has available to ensure that each eligible citizen can register, cast a ballot and have that ballot counted free from racial discrimination.

But I have to admit we are fighting without our most effective tool. The Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in Shelby County v. Holder eliminated preclearance, the single most powerful and effective enforcement mechanism we had to protect the right to vote. That is why it is imperative that Congress pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Act to finally ensure every American can participate in our democracy.

When talking about voting, I often am drawn back to a quote from President Lyndon B. Johnson: “A [wo]man without a vote is a [wo]man without protection.” While President Johnson’s statement was focused on the voting rights of men— I have improved on his original statement — but I think he summarizes precisely what is at stake. If people cannot access the ballot, then the state of our fundamental rights will always be vulnerable.

Racial justice must also extend to the communities in which we live. For many people in marginalized communities, however, simply walking through their neighborhood may not feel safe amid the surge of hate crimes in recent years.

FBI statistics show that, show that, during the pandemic, there was a rise in hate crimes committed against Black Americans, already the group most often targeted. Anti-Asian violence has also risen by over 70%. Tragically, we have seen some of the most disturbing crimes in this very city.

Attacks on people because of their race, national origin, religion, gender or sexual orientation are unacceptable. Attorney General Merrick Garland’s very first directive in office was to determine how the department could deploy all the tools at our disposal to counter this rise in hate crimes.

The division that I lead serves as the prosecutors of federal hate crimes. We have significantly stepped up our prosecution of these cases, including securing guilty verdicts on hate crime charges against the three men who killed Ahmaud Arbery.

The evidence at trial revealed that the defendants had strongly held racist beliefs that led them to make assumptions and decisions about Mr. Arbery because he was Black. For instance, the evidence showed that one defendant had referred to his daughter’s Black boyfriend as a “monkey” and used the “n-word” that a second had made deeply racist comments, including that he wished that Julian Bond, a prominent Black civil rights leader, “had been put in the ground years ago,” and that “those Blacks are nothing but trouble,” and that the third had expressed on social media and in text messages that he associated Black people with criminality and wanted to see them harmed or killed.

The tragic killing of Ahmaud Arbery illustrates why robust enforcement of our federal hate crimes laws is essential. Enforcing hate crimes laws sends a powerful message to those who are affected, and to the broader community: that they are valued, that their communities are important, and that the federal government will not stand by idly when they are targeted.

But we know that work to confront hate in this era requires that we use every tool available to us. That is why the department is also hard at work maximizing the use of our non-criminal resources to address acts of bias where appropriate. For example, in October 2021, the Civil Rights Division and the United States Attorney’s Office for Utah announced a settlement agreement with the Davis School District in Utah to address race discrimination in the district’s schools, including serious and widespread racial harassment of Black and Asian American students. Our investigation in that case revealed persistent failures to respond to reports of race-based harassment of Black and Asian American students, by district staff and other students. Between 2015 and 2020, the department found hundreds of documented uses of the “N-word,” among other racial epithets, derogatory racial comments, and physical assaults targeting district students at dozens of schools. The investigation also showed that the school district disciplined Black students more harshly than their white peers for similar behavior. The department’s resolution of this case requires the school district to enact significant institutional reforms to address discrimination and protect vulnerable students.

Racial justice also requires that the people are able to trust the police who serve them. That is why my division has worked to hold individual police officers accountable for misconduct. In the past this year, we secured convictions of four former Minneapolis police officers for federal civil rights violations in the death of George Floyd. Those convictions sent a clear message to police departments across the country that they must use only reasonable force and that they have a proactive duty to protect the constitutional rights of all Americans.

And where there is evidence of systemic violations of civil rights laws, we have tools available to address that pattern of misconduct as well. These investigations are formally known as “pattern or practice investigations,” and they reflect a unique and critically important authority vested in the Department of Justice. In the last year, the department has opened pattern or practice investigations of the police departments in Louisville, Minneapolis, Phoenix and Mount Vernon, New York. That work is ongoing.

Ensuring police are held accountable to the people they serve will remain a top priority of the Department of Justice and the Civil Rights Division.

We are also dedicated to ensuring economic justice by enforcing federal civil rights laws that protect fair housing, equal employment opportunity and the rights of people with disabilities.

Earlier this year, the division filed another statement of interest in an ongoing lawsuit where the plaintiffs, a Black couple, sought to refinance their home. When the appraiser visited their home the first time it was valued around a million dollars. However, a few weeks later, they had their house re-appraised but this time with their white friend posing as the homeowner. The same exact house, was now appraised nearly a half million dollars more. This discrimination is prohibited under the Fair Housing Act and the division, and the division is determined to protect communities of color and ensure economic justice.

Relatedly, we are committed to tackling the pervasive problem of redlining, which remains a major historic and present-day driver of racial wealth disparities. You may know that the term “redlining” originates with actual red lines drawn on maps that identified predominantly-Black neighborhoods as “hazardous.” Starting in the 1930s, government-sponsored programs and private lenders used these maps and related practices to deny credit to neighborhoods because of their racial demographics. This formalized a system that significantly limited homeownership opportunities for communities of color.

Federal laws like the Fair Housing Act and the Equal Credit Opportunity Act were intended to help address this history of housing segregation and discriminatory lending practices. But the battle to combat redlining is ongoing.

This is why the Justice Department launched a new initiative to investigate lenders across the country and analyze whether they are engaging in unlawful redlining. The Combatting Redlining Initiative represents the department’s most aggressive and coordinated effort yet to address this problem. To date, the department has resolved redlining allegations against Trustmark National Bank in Memphis and Cadence Bank in Houston. Collectively these two banks will invest over $10 million to increase credit opportunities to residents of those neighborhoods. While there is more to do, we are committed to the task.

Let me be clear: none of this is easy. And none of the rights and protections we have should be taken for granted.

I am sometimes struck that the Civil Rights Division that I now oversee did not always exist. It’s nearly 65 years old and was borne of the activism and organizing of the early Civil Rights Movement. The division was created as part of the Civil Rights Act of 1957 – a bill so sweeping that New York’s own Adam Clayton Powell Jr called it, quote, “the second emancipation.”

Justice is built one brick at a time. And it can be dismantled the same way. When it comes to ensuring equal justice in America, we are on the case.

I want to thank you again for having me here to speak with you today. It is an extraordinary honor to talk to so many passionate, successful Black women. It reminds me of a quote from the great Constance Baker Motley, the civil rights leader and federal judge I spoke about earlier.

When asked about how she felt having to face so many systemic and institutional barriers, she said, “The lack of encouragement never deterred me. I was the kind of person who would not be put down.”

That’s the spirit I seek to reflect as I lead the Civil Rights Division. I will not be put down. The incredibly talented people on my team will not be put down. And the millions of Americans demanding equal justice will not be put down.

I’m proud to stand with you all in this vital, urgent work. Thank you again for having me here today.

Civil Rights
Updated April 7, 2022