Assistant attorney general: "Voting discrimination is alive and well"

·3 min read

Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke, the first Black woman to run the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, says voting discrimination persists in the United States. Equal access to the ballot box is one of her department's top priorities.

"We have made a lot of progress as a nation. But we've still got a long way to go," she told CBS News chief national affairs and Justice correspondent Jeff Pegues in her first TV interview since taking office last year.

Clarke said new state voting restrictions are targeting people of color.

"Voting discrimination is alive and well," she said.

But, she said, she doesn't view the issue as partisan.

"I was there at the White House when President Bush signed the last reauthorization of the bill into law. It passed in Congress in 2006 by a 98-to-0 vote in the Senate," she said. "I'm hopeful that we can get back to that place, where we've been time and time again, where Congress has worked in bipartisan fashion to renew the Voting Rights Act."

Right now, the legislation is stalled in Congress. The Biden administration and Senate Democrats do not have the votes to pass their election reform measures.

Within the Democratic Party, there is growing frustration that the Justice Department and the president have failed to reverse Republican efforts to change state election laws with the midterm elections approaching and control of Congress on the ballot.

"I understand the frustration that people feel as we watch states that are working to make it harder for people to vote," Clarke said.

Raised in working-class East New York, Brooklyn, Clarke has a reputation for not backing down from a fight.

She says her parents, who immigrated to the U.S. from Jamaica, wanted their kids to get a good education. As a teenager, Clarke attended Choate Rosemary Hall in Connecticut, one of the most prestigious boarding schools in the country. Alumni include former President John F. Kennedy.

Clarke said she "settled right in" at the school, but it wasn't easy. "A very different environment than East New York," she said.

During her third year at Choate, she says she learned how the law could be a powerful tool for change when she sat in on a landmark desegregation case focusing on the disparities between urban and suburban schools.

"In many ways, Choate has a lot to do with my journey to where I am today," she said.

Today, she is the first Black woman heading the Civil Rights Division, headquartered in former FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover's old office. From her desk, she can see Pennsylvania Avenue and Capitol Hill, but she hasn't forgotten how she got there.

"I know what it's like for families who grow up poor and who struggle, who live paycheck to paycheck," she said. "I know what that experience is like. I know what it's like to be marginalized, sidelined and silenced. And that personal perspective shapes who I am."

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