Kristen Clarke parlayed a childhood in crime-ridden East Brooklyn into a career as a civil rights lawyer and commentator on issues of race, law and democracy. As chief of the New York attorney general's Civil Rights Bureau, a position she assumed a year ago, Clarke promotes civil rights enforcement with an arsenal of New York's robust anti-discrimination laws.
Previously, Clarke was an attorney with the civil rights division of the U.S. Department of Justice and co-director of the Political Participation Group at the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund. She was part of the NAACP litigation team that successfully defended the Voting Rights Act in Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District No. One v. Holder, 557 U.S. 193 (2009). Another voting rights case she argued at the trial level, Shelby County, Alabama v. Holder, is headed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
A graduate of Harvard University and Columbia Law School, the 38-year-old Clarke was honored in 2011 by the National Bar Association as one of the "Nation's Best Advocates: 40 Lawyers Under 40." She has also written extensively on civil rights issues. Her recent books include Barack Obama and African American Empowerment: The Rise of Black America's New Leadership and Seeking Higher Ground: The Hurricane Katrina Crisis, Race and Public Policy Reader, both edited with the late Manning Marable, a leading black history scholar and Pulitzer Prize winner.
Her salary at the attorney general's office is $140,000.
Q: You have spent virtually your entire career advocating for civil rights. What drove you to this area of the law?
A: My experience growing up in the East New York section of Brooklyn played a large role in my decision to pursue a career in civil rights. This is a section of Brooklyn that is racially isolated and one with some of the highest poverty, crime and unemployment rates in the city. Although I have had the benefit of attending exceptional schools, I know that there are far too many who have not had access to equal educational opportunities.
I have profound respect for the work of civil rights lawyers and advocates such as Thurgood Marshall and Charles Hamilton Houston and Constance Baker Motley. Through seminal cases such as Brown v. Board of Education, they used the law as a vehicle to promote integration and as a tool to close some of the stark racial gaps that we face. I chose this path recognizing that their work is not yet done and that the progress we have achieved remains fragile.
Q: Have you personally experienced discrimination?
A: I grew up in a community called Starrett City, one of the largest housing developments in the country. Starrett City was the subject of litigation under the Fair Housing Act. For years, the complex maintained a system of racial quotas -- white prospective tenants could walk in and easily rent an apartment while black and Latino prospective tenants often faced a wait list. Starrett City defended its quota system by arguing that its purpose was to maintain a certain racial balance in the apartments, but a group of minority litigants defeated the policy by bringing a successful claim under the Fair Housing Act.
My experience in Starrett City reminds me that tackling racial segregation and isolation are incredibly complex challenges with no easy solutions but precisely the kind of problems that we need to tackle head on.
Q: How has the definition of discrimination changed? Which are the groups most at risk today?
A: Discrimination has definitely become more sophisticated in form though its impact remains the same. The challenge today is figuring out how to ensure that civil rights enforcement remains tailored to dealing with the new barriers and challenges that we face today.
For example, our state and our country are continuing to grapple with the effects of the mortgage foreclosure crisis, the overall economic downturn and high rates of unemployment. We are now seeing many employers using credit history reports as tools to evaluate job candidates. We are seeing other employers who refuse to hire job candidates who are currently unemployed. These kinds of hiring practices may be ones that have a greater impact on African-Americans, Latinos, women, the elderly and other minority groups.
The challenge is making sure that we remain focused on combating discrimination in whatever shape it rears its ugly head.
Marriage equality in New York certainly stands as a landmark achievement and we must work to ensure that same-sex couples are treated equally and fairly. We have a number of veterans and military personnel who are increasingly the targets of predatory schemes. New immigrants to our state are far too often subject to fraud and reluctant to seek the assistance of law enforcement.
Q: What does the Attorney General's Civil Rights Bureau do?
A: The Civil Rights Bureau is an engine of aggressive civil rights enforcement. The attorneys within the bureau are among the brightest and most dedicated advocates that I have had the chance to work with.
We review the complaints that come to us with a fine-tooth comb and we meet and hear from advocates about the problems that they are facing. We are proactive in our approach and frequently launch new initiatives to tackle stubborn areas of discrimination. We work to fight employment and housing discrimination, combat immigration fraud and predatory practices aimed at minority groups, and work to promote equal educational opportunity and full access to the ballot box. Sometimes achieving real results means taking a stance that is unpopular and we have an attorney general who is not afraid to do that.