We need Kristen Clarke and diverse officials for the Justice Department
When President Biden announced his plan last month to combat violence and racism against Asian Americans, it was a momentous recognition of an invisible history our country has long ignored. His plan shows the need for an aggressive law enforcement response to the dangerous rise in hate crimes against Asian Americans. At the same time, his plan acknowledges that law enforcement cannot address this crisis if all the trauma it comes with remains invisible and its victims remain in the shadows. To succeed, the Senate should confirm Kristen Clarke to be assistant attorney general for the civil rights division at the Justice Department.
We need Clarke in this critical role not just because of her remarkable and extensive resume, but because she understands, as a child of immigrants like myself, the cultural barriers that exist in addressing these crimes. We need her because she has dedicated her career to combating hate and fighting for equity and opportunity for all people in all communities. We need her because she is a skilled manager with the capacity to lead the kind of bold action which our country needs right now.
It was painful to listen to the 911 call in Atlanta last month from a woman huddled in the corner hiding from gunshots struggling to find the words in English for the horror of what she was witnessing. She persevered and was able to give the dispatcher the necessary information, but barriers in language and trust mean that so many other hate crimes go unreported. Representation matters now more than ever. Our law enforcement leaders and those in the legal profession must be as diverse as the communities we seek to serve or those chasms will continue to persist.
We need Clarke because she understands that fighting hate crimes and protecting civil rights go hand in hand. She knows that empowering all people by access to housing, education, and health care to bring more people out of poverty and out of the shadows is necessary to providing safe communities for all people regardless of the language they speak, the color of their skin, how they identify, or who they love.
This depth is based on years of her own experience. As head of the civil rights bureau in the New York Office of the Attorney General, Clarke led training around the state for law enforcement on how to assist residents with limited English. While leading the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, she worked along with the International Association of Chiefs of Police and the widow of Srinivas Kuchibhotla, an Indian American who was shot and killed in a bar in Kansas four years ago by a man yelling “get out of my country.” They worked together to strengthen the ability of law enforcement to sensitively respond to such hate crimes.
Partisan rhetoric and policies in the last several years, and notably since the pandemic, have made life less safe for families like mine and that of Clarke. Whenever terms such as “China virus” or “Kung flu” were used to scapegoat Asian Americans for the failures of our own leaders, or when white supremacist terror was tolerated or even encouraged, a target was placed on our backs. But it was not just this racist rhetoric.
Over the last several years, state attorneys general like myself fought an onslaught of cruelty. We fought plans to make it easier to discriminate in housing and health care. We fought plans that would strip immigrants of basic due process rights afforded by the law. We fought against plans to make it harder for many Americans to vote safely. As the leader of a civil rights group founded at the suggestion of President Kennedy to enlist the pro bono services of the top lawyers in the country in the battle for civil rights, Clarke was fighting with us for justice and equity.
Our country is in the midst of a reckoning on race and justice. Now more than ever, we need leaders who understand that our government is not separate and apart from that conversation. We are at the very center of that conversation. Indeed, the Justice Department has an obligation and opportunity to be a productive institution that works hard to fight for what is right. The people in charge of that duty and the perspectives they bring to that discussion matter. We all need Clarke at that table.
William Tong is the first Asian American to serve as the attorney general of Connecticut. He is a former member of the state House of Representatives.