On Ketanji Brown Jackson, ‘Making History,’ And The Expense Of Black Women’s Well-Being

Photo: Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images.
Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson is exhausted. I see it in her tight-lipped smiles that feel forced. In the shift in her posture over the course of lengthy hearing days. In the tears pooling in her eyes that she somehow kept from falling. That is until a Black man, Sen. Cory Booker, intervened and reminded Judge Jackson of her power, worth, and example. Only then was she so moved that her cries could no longer be suppressed. A cathartic release that so many of us felt alongside her. 
Judge Jackson has sat through this before: first in early 2010, when the U.S. Senate confirmed President Obama’s nomination of Jackson to the U.S. Sentencing Commission. Then in December 2012, when she was nominated and successfully confirmed to the United States District Court. Her most recent confirmation was just last year, when Judge Jackson was successfully appointed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. But none of those three occasions were as highly publicized or as consequential as the hearings she is now undergoing. 
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A lifetime appointment on the Supreme Court tends to raise the stakes, but the vitriol that Judge Jackson has been subjected to feels deeply personal —a reminder that the institution wasn’t built with women like her in mind. A reminder to those also having the audacity to dream of disrupting spaces built by and for whiteness, that the road to being first will (intentionally) never be easy. Many have rushed to reiterate how overqualified Judge Jackson is compared to sitting justices, but they are missing a critical point. These lines of questioning are not designed to vet Judge Jackson’s impartiality, but to subject her to enough contempt so as to make her break and/or to discourage others who are unwilling to put up with the racial antagonism.


A lifetime appointment on the Supreme Court tends to raise the stakes, but the vitriol that Judge Jackson has been subjected to feels deeply personal —a reminder that the institution wasn’t built with women like her in mind.

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Why else would Judge Jackson be asked to define the term “woman” or to to divulge the idiosyncrasies of her religious faith? Arguably, none of this has or will come up in her work as a justice. Judge Jackson, as she skillfully stated during the hearings, is not a biologist, and there is no religious test in the Constitution. Why else would Senator Graham berate and speak over Judge Jackson as she explained the intricacies of sentencing guidelines? Why else would Senator Ted Cruz, Judge Jackson’s former Harvard Law classmate, use his allotted time to parade progressive books by Black authors before the committee? Judge Jackson had no hand in writing or marketing those books, and they certainly won’t be part of her future docket. In my opinion, Senator Cruz wanted to force Judge Jackson into distancing herself from the canon of brilliant works being banned nationwide in this anti-critical race theory witch hunt. In doing so, he was asking this Black woman to deny the intersectionality of her own life in order to be promoted to a role in ways Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett certainly were not. And with her back against the wall, she did just that.
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Senate Judiciary Chair Dick Durbin lamented the behavior of his colleagues, “Some of the attacks on this judge were unfair, unrelenting, and beneath the dignity of the United States Senate… I was so saddened by that and it happened over and over and over again. I hope that is not the lasting impression that people have of the work of this committee.” Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson has handled the four days with grace under fire, but that’s not the point. An Onion headline put it best: “Ketanji Brown Jackson Weighs Making History Against Soul-Crushing Thought of Spending Time With These People.” If the 22 hours Judge Jackson has spent with this Senate committee are any indication of the lifetime of labor to come, she is in for a painful and self-sacrificing ride. All in the name of breaking glass ceilings. What happens when Black women decide we are tired of being cut by the shards?


If the 22 hours Judge Jackson has spent with this Senate committee are any indication of the lifetime of labor to come, she is in for a painful and self-sacrificing ride. All in the name of breaking glass ceilings. What happens when Black women decide we are tired of being cut by the shards?

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Harry Belafonte regularly repeats a harrowing quote that Dr. King said to him: “I fear I may have integrated my people into a burning house.” We have put “making history” on such a high pedestal that we are rarely pausing to weigh the cost. Many shared the beautiful photo (taken by photographer Sarahbeth Maney for The New York Times) of Judge Jackson’s daughter Leila looking on with admiration as her mother smiles before the committee. A seemingly heart-warming story was shared of 11-year-old Leila writing to then-President Barack Obama to appoint her mother to the Supreme Court. While many have gushed and used this photo to discuss how important it is for young girls and women to see a Black woman in this position, I think of how horrifying it must have been for Leila Jackson to watch her mother being disrespected in this way, unable to truly defend herself. To know how hard she had worked and how little it meant when white men and women chose to baselessly attack her character and record. 
It all begs the question: why are we expected to be martyrs for a “greater good”? Why is our well-being not factored into this national priority? When do we decide that many Black women don’t exist in certain rooms of power, not because we can’t, but because we don’t want to? When do we name the fact that the toxicity of these environments is also a tactic towards maintaining a status quo and keeping marginalized people away from “The Table”? Jalyn Radziminski tweeted the mic drop reality check we all need: “The resilience you all expect of Black women is outdated. And once we celebrate her confirmation, I hope we also all think about how we can support Black women that want to lead without trauma involved.”
I want more for Ketanji Brown Jackson than cool monikers and a permanent place in history books. I want her to enter rooms where she is valued and can defend her career with pride. I want her to feel fulfilled by her work, not depleted. I want her to be able to celebrate her wins without the need to heal from the trauma of winning as a Black woman in America. I want more for her, because I want more for us.

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