Kristen Clarke, President-elect Joe Biden’s nominee for assistant attorney general for civil rights, responded on Wednesday night to recent criticism of her past comments about racial superiority and her role while a student at Harvard University in organizing a 1994 event that featured antisemitic comments by a controversial professor. She said it “was a mistake” to have hosted the professor, and that her comments had been “twisted.”
Clarke, who was at the time president of Harvard’s Black Students Association, hosted Prof. Tony Martin to speak to students about racism. But Martin, who a year earlier had authored a book titled “The Jewish Onslaught,” devoted his hour-long speech at the event to spew conspiracy theories about a Jewish “tradition” of persecuting Blacks, and accused Jews of having a “monopoly” on the notion of African inferiority.
Following the event, amid criticism, Clarke issued a statement supporting Martin’s defense of Black students and their intellect. “Professor Martin is an intelligent, well-versed Black intellectual who bases his information on indisputable fact,” she wrote.
In an exclusive interview late Wednesday, Clarke said that Martin, who died in 2013, had reached out and offered to speak on campus, and that it “was a mistake to accept his offer to come and to defend him.”
“Giving someone like him a platform, it’s not something I would do again,” Clarke said.
Asked if she denounces Martin and his views, Clarke said, “I do, 100%. I unequivocally denounce antisemitism.”
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.
Clarke was nominated as a deputy to Attorney General-designate Merrick Garland on Jan. 7.
In the interview, Clarke also clarified a letter she co-authored to the editors of The Harvard Crimson in 1994, touting “the genetic differences between Blacks and whites” and explaining that “melanin endows Blacks with greater mental, physical and spiritual abilities.” The letter was first reported by Fox News host Tucker Carlston.
Clarke accused conservative news outlets of “putting out a lot of false and twisted information” about her views and past comments.
According to Clarke, the letter was in response to views touted by the psychologist Richard Herrnstein and political scientist Charles Murray, in a book titled “The Bell Curve,” that questioned the intellectual ability and moral right of Black students to be at an institution of higher learning. The book, she said, “was generating wide acclaim for its racist views” and her intention in opening 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 explained, “and the goal was all about [exposing] the ugly racist underpinnings of the Bell Curve theory. It was deeply personal and profoundly important to Black students and other students of color who felt that their right to be on campus was challenged. And frankly, the fight that we were leading as students is a fight that I am still very much a part of today.”
“The fact is that I am somebody who has dedicated their entire career to fighting antisemitism, racism, white supremacy and bias whenever it shows up,” she added.
As recently as 2019, Clarke expressed support for Tamika Mallory, one of the leaders of the Women’s March, who was forced to resign over accusations of antisemitism and her association with Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan.
“We have supported the Women’s March throughout the past three years because we trust Tamika’s leadership and we trust her judgment to ensure the Women’s March remains an inclusive movement that African American women throughout the Diaspora can see themselves reflected in,” a statement, which Clarke was one of its signatories, read. The statement added, “Women’s March, Inc. embraces Kingian Nonviolence as core to their role as servant leaders. We share these principles and join them in denouncing racism, antisemitism, sexism, violence, and bigotry in any form in our nation.”
Clarke defended the statement, saying, “The marginalization of women of color is a threat to disrupt democracy, and what led me to join that letter was a grave concern about seeing another woman of color marginalized and silenced. Let me be clear, I denounce antisemitism wherever and whenever it shows up.”
Jacob Kornbluh is the Forward’s senior political reporter. Follow him on Twitter @jacobkornbluh or email firstname.lastname@example.org.