Kristen Clarke advocates for a more just society as president and executive director at the National Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. She’s also an author and former federal prosecutor. Over the course of her career, she has worked on voting rights legislation, housing discrimination and disability rights issues, police reform, and on dismantling the school-to-prison pipeline. Clarke is a graduate of both Harvard University and Columbia Law School.
This is the third part of a series where civil rights leaders, cultural influencers, advocates and critical thinkers explain race relations, societal change, community protest and the political awakening happening in the United States following the tragic deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and other Black Americans. The group, including NAACP President Derrick Johnson and #OscarsSoWhite Creator April Reign, pose their thoughts on race relations during the summer of 2020 and how America may move forward less divided. Join the conversation on social media using #PassTheMic.
Kristen Clarke, President and Executive Director, Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law
Q: How would you describe the civic unrest occurring in America right now?
A: Let's be clear about this moment. We are witnessing a unified movement against the violent manifestations of systemic racism that pervades every aspect of our lives, especially when it comes to policing and the operation of the criminal justice system of our country. Black communities and their allies are saying enough is enough— police violence and racism are twin evils that have harmed Black people for far too long. Racism is not a thing of the past. It was not “solved” 50 years ago. We are a nation in crisis and the racism underlying this crisis must be addressed today, or more Black bodies will face the fatal consequences.
Q: Is this a fleeting moment or have we reached an inflection point where lasting change is possible?
A: The killing of George Floyd was an inflection point, laying bare the racism that infects every aspect of our criminal justice system. Because of the determined and focused activism that followed, changes have been made that seemed impossible even a few months ago. The policing reform movement has more momentum now than ever. Some officers are facing indictment and prosecution, though there is more work to be done to promote accountability. Allies are educating themselves on how to be actively anti-racist. However, it is imperative that we recognize this work has only just begun. What we need now are policy changes at every level of government that are even more tangible, comprehensive, and widespread than the systems of racism in this country.
Q: Is there another moment in history that relates to the moment we are living through now?
A: This is a moment like none other in our nation's history. We are literally witnessing the emergence of one of the biggest racial justice movements that we have seen in modern time. For the first time, we are talking openly about white supremacy and racism, young people are standing on the front lines and setting the agenda, we are putting an end to the glorification of the Confederacy and we are demanding comprehensive reforms to address police violence.
1968 and the turmoil wrought in the wake of Dr. King’s assassination is a moment analogous to today, particularly when coupled with the many flash-points of the 60s. But this moment deserves its own chapter in history. The advent of social media and the near-ubiquity of information have provided the public a front-row seat to the horrible spectacle of state-sanctioned violence against Black and brown people while also serving as a powerful mobilizing tool. The activism here had had ripple effects across the globe. This a unique and monumental moment that can literally redirect the trajectory of American democracy.
Q: What specifically needs to happen for Black lives to matter in the United States?
A: The House recently passed the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act which bans chokeholds, no-knock warrants, and brings stronger accountability measures for officers who break the law, notably ending qualified immunity. However, reforming law enforcement is only the beginning of a much larger project that must be undertaken for Black lives to matter. The protests in the wake of the killings of unarmed Black men and women in our nation gives us insight into the gravity of the problem and this demands bold solutions. We must pursue transformational change the likes of which we haven’t seen since the New Deal and Reconstruction.
Q: What does social justice mean to you personally and why should others care?
A: Social justice is a movement to make our democracy stronger and better for all communities regardless of race, class, or creed. Though America has enshrined egalitarian principles in our law, we have fallen short on making those principles tangible and real for all. At this moment, it is critical that the public care about and commit to the fight for social justice because it means pushing anti-racism, and anti-sexism, eliminating homophobia and xenophobia, and more.
Q: What solutions will heal racial divisions and disparities?
A: Racism is a cancerous tumor that must be excised from the soul of our nation. We must eliminate this crisis root and branch. Solutions begin with an acknowledgment of the deleterious impact that this discrimination has had on virtually every aspect of our lives-- our schools, our neighborhoods, our criminal justice system, our economy, our health care system, our jobs and economy have all been infected by racism. This was never sustainable.
We lived through two periods of Reconstruction. Now is time for the third. We must confront the impact of the Trump administration, address the issues exposed by the pandemic and confront the crisis of police violence head-on. This work will involve addressing the damage that has been done, rebuilding our institutions with a real commitment to racial equity and reimagining policing in our country. It will involve a reckoning with our nation's sordid history of racism and white supremacy.
Q: How do you feel about the future?
A: My son, Miles, is 15 years old -- I know that the work we do right now will literally shape his future and impact his life outcomes.
We are a nation at a crossroads and I am heartened about the direction we move from here. Protests and demonstrations will be a part of our new normal until we get this moment right. We are going to talk openly about and fully confront racism and white supremacy, without sugarcoating these problems. We are going to have moments that make us uncomfortable and we should because these problems are ones tearing at the fabric of society and literally resulting in the loss of Black lives. I am hopeful that we can seize this moment to confront all of the ways in which the public health pandemic and the police violence crisis have laid fully bare the ways in which Black people have been rendered to second-class treatment. 2020 is when we embark down the road of fixing this once and for all.