Ketanji Brown Jackson’s Hearing Felt Familiar to Black Women

Judge Ketanji brown Jackson took a long, sombre pause. Senator Ted Cruz had just showed blown-up images from Dr. Ibram X. Kendi’s Antiracist BabyShe asked her if babies are racist. Beyond the fact that he was twisting the ideas of a children’s book intended to help kids understand the insidious role of racism in our society and trying to link it to critical race theory, which is taught in law schools, he was also clearly trying to score points. You could see her thinking about how to respond to the obvious provocation, to show him the respect that he wasn’t showing her. She then calmly explained that she didn’t believe that any child should be made to feel racist or that they are victims or oppressors.

The exchange was extraordinary in its circumstances – Jackson was the first Black woman to appear before the Senate Judiciary Committee as a nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court – but to Black women across the country, it was also familiar. A celebration of America’s progress since the abolishment of slavery turned out to be a reminder about just how far America still has to go.

Jackson would make a wonderful Supreme Court candidate in so many ways. She’s well educated with a stellar record both as an attorney and as a judge. There’s nothing questionable in her personal life, no indications of any ethical flaws. Indeed, Senator Lindsey Graham voted in her favor to confirm her seat at the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals. Jackson spent more time at the bench than Justice Amy Coney Barrett did when she was elected. And unlike Justice Clarence Thomas and Justice Brett Kavanaugh she has not been accused of any sexual harassment or assault. The allegations have been denied by both Justices.

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Jackson, despite her remarkable credentials, has been subject to microaggressions and outright lies, as well as requests for non-relevant information. This happened both before and during her confirmation hearings. From Tucker Carlson’s obsession with her LSAT scores to Cruz’s bizarre contention that she should have to answer for the work of another Black scholar simply because she serves on the board of trustees of a day school where his book is taught, the attacks have not been your typical partisan fare. Senator Marsha Blackburn, for instance, insisted that Jackson’s support of the 1619 Project means that she wants to teach children that America is a fundamentally racist country. Blackburn’s arguments were particularly offensive as she positioned herself as a strict adherent to the Constitution despite her own inability to tell the difference between it and the Declaration of Independence. Jackson’s sentencing hearing for sexual offenders was repeatedly interrupted by Senators. Jackson suggested that Jackson might be too soft on crime and put her children in danger.

Jackson’s frustration was evident, even though it was hard to see. She’s going to be expected to eat this indignity with a smile and never speak of it publicly after her confirmation. Like all Black women in America she knows that she can get upset and react with anger.

The hearings made plain that what so many of us already know — that even the politicians who are supposed to represent everyone have been conditioned to expect Black women to be less than them. This is how they look like so many Americans. They expect Black women to work hard, but not be too successful, or to acknowledge the obstacles they’ve overcome in their pursuit of success. It’s an expectation that hearkens back to Mammy, the stereotype of a happily disenfranchised Black woman devoted to caring for the family that enslaved her no matter the personal cost, and to Jim Crow era etiquette, which prescribed that Black people refrain from showing too much emotion in public as it might make white people uncomfortable, and it is still present in workplaces and schools today.

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In America, black women are expected to fulfill two functions at work. One is to make their coworkers happy at their expense. It’s not enough to be educated, accomplished, and professional. It is important that they are not able to express themselves in the face of racist stereotypes. To avoid being perceived as a threat, they must not be overly assertive and talented. As Jackson said, it is a difficult situation for them and they have to persevere like Jackson.

Although politics will be used as an excuse for these atrocious acts, many Republican senators are using this toolbox to justify their bigotry. They know that there won’t be any consequences. Many of their constituents will laud this behavior, and even those who don’t are likely to celebrate Jackson’s strength and never consider what these hearings have cost her emotionally.

The Black American community believes that it takes twice as much effort to make it half the way. Senator Cory Booker spoke to this idea in his emotional tribute to Jackson when he told her, “You got here how every Black woman in America who’s gotten anywhere has done, by being, like Ginger Rogers said, ‘I did everything Fred Astaire did but backwards in heels.’” What we do not often say out loud is that for those of us who reach great heights, we have not only worked twice as hard, but we have also been hurt twice as much, and probably more. Jackson had to endure a lifetime worth of treatment to get to this point. She has not allowed it to stop Jackson.

Partisan pundits and others will continue to attempt to discredit her. They will scrutinize every move she makes, despite not knowing what it is like to travel this unique path as a Black woman to the highest court of the land. Although she may be the first to do so, she won’t be the last. As with all trailblazers her influence will be felt in Black girls and women, who will too learn how to express their emotions in private while keeping a cool, collected face in public. Booker told her, “It is so good to see you here.” And it was. She deserves the best welcome.

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