The United States Senate began the historic Supreme Court confirmation hearing for the honorable Ketanji Brown Jackson on March 21.
She is the first African American Woman to be nominated for the Supreme Court in U.S. history. If confirmed, Judge Brown Jackson will become the first African American woman to sit on the highest court in the land.
Judge Brown Jackson graduated magna cum laude from Harvard University and cum laude from Harvard Law School, where she served as an editor of the Harvard Law Review.
She received bi-partisan support and was elected to serve as a Judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. She has served as a judge on the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, Vice Chair of the U.S. Sentencing Commission, a public defender and Supreme Court Clerk for current U.S. Supreme Court Justice, Stephen Breyer (who, if confirmed, she would replace when his retirement goes into effect).
By many accounts, Judge Brown Jackson may be one of the most qualified individuals to ever be nominated for the high court! Her record is stellar. Her character is impeccable. Her recommendations are bi-partisan and outstanding.
Yet, the most controversial identifier for Judge Brown Jackson is that of being a “Black” woman.
Although Presidents Reagan (Justice Sandra Day O’Connor), Clinton (Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg), Obama (Justices Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor) and Trump (Justice Amy Coney Barrett) all nominated and successfully seated women justices, none of the other women justices received the abundance of slanderous comments, public questioning of qualifications and racialized remarks hurled at Judge Brown Jackson.
Other presidents emphasized the importance of increasing diversity upon the court. President Reagan emphasized the importance of adding both an “Italian American,” when nominating Justice Antonin Scalia, and a woman, when nominating Justice O’Connor, as did President Obama when nominating the first Latina woman/person, Justice Sotomayor.
However, there was no chorus of racist commentators yelling, “These are affirmative action appointments.”
Fox “News” commentator Tucker Carlson made the demeaning remark that President Biden may as well have nominated the sister of the late George Floyd, as he flashed a picture of her on the television screen, when she was clearly not at her best.
By now, you may be asking, “What does any of this have to do with the long shadow of the transatlantic slave trade?” My answer is everything.
Why is it inconceivable that a Black woman would become a U.S. Supreme Court Justice, even more so than a Black man? Understanding the history of racism and sexism in America is critical in order to see the connection.
Whereas white women experience gender discrimination and Black men experience racial discrimination, Black women experience both, in addition to class discrimination.
Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term intersectionality theory in her 1989 publication, asserting that race, gender and class intersect to create formidable systemic barriers for African American women across a variety of sectors.
Intersectionality theory emphasizes the reality that interlocking systems create barriers that seek to delegitimize the voices, experiences and ideologies of African American women.
Across all systems (educational, medical, financial, housing, etc.), African American people in general, and African American women in particular, have to work “thrice” as hard to get one iota as much.
Writing about Black women executives, several researchers posit that the myriad of challenges experienced by African American women leaders, related to their intersectionalized identities have been predominantly ignored.
Although they are visible – able to be physically seen due to the color of their skin – they remain invisible (essentially ignored) in terms of their ideas, opportunities for promotion, inequitable treatment and the silencing of their voices.
Black women have been victimized by the pejorative stereotypes imposed upon them by mainstream America. They have been depicted as hostile, overbearing, aggressive, ignorant and hot-tempered without cause. These descriptors have historically placed Black women in the precarious position of having to remain silent as they endure harsh and inequitable treatment.
From whence cometh these horrific conditions and stereotypes? One can draw a direct line between now and the arrival of the first slave ships in Fort Monroe (current day Hampton, Virginia), in the year1619.
Using Black bodies (Black women to produce babies to be sold, serve as “bed warmers” for white men, nurses, nursing white babies for white women, maids, cooks, “mammy’s,” etc., and Black men to be used for cruel labor, amusement and chattel), was a cornerstone of the newly forming economy in America.
To justify the unimaginable cruelty and brutality, a “brilliant” system was orchestrated – the social construct of “race.”
Writing in Slavery’s Long Shadow, race and religion scholar James Bennett explained that the concept of race is that people can be separated into “distinct and exclusive groups that are marked by unalterable, physical characteristics that are a result of ancestry and genetics.” In other words, by the very color of one’s skin, individuals are ranked.
White colonizers “otherized” people of color in general, and Black people in particular, as genetically inferior, less than human, basically brute beasts. Subsequently, history was shaped to inculcate within the minds of white people that God ordained them as the superior race.
In this line of thinking, white is supreme in terms of genetics, intellect, religion and all forms of leadership. The races were never to mix.
Black people, specifically, are to remain a perpetual underclass. They are not to be trusted. They are to be feared. They are to be severely scrutinized. They are to never hold leadership over white people. Since they are lower beings, treating them inhumanely is acceptable.
One might argue, “Well, Chris, how can you say such harsh things? Didn’t we elect our first African American president? Don’t we have African American people serving in high level positions across America? Can’t children attend school wherever they choose? If people just work hard and follow the law, they can become anything they want to be. There are poor white people who are oppressed as well!”
There is too much to discuss here. However, I challenge you to look deeply into the systems that continue to drive America.
Look at the written and unwritten rules that cause banks to charge higher interest rates to Black homeowners seeking a loan. Talk with realtors who advise Black homeowners, wishing to sell their homes, to remove any hint that the home is owned by Black people (as many white people will not buy a home owned by Blacks or will not pay as much).
Look at the gaps within pay between white America and Black America. Explore the statistics that show that Black people receive the lowest, and poorest, medical care.
Look at the preponderance of evidence showing the broad range of incidences towards Black Americans of police brutality, car stops and searches, incarcerations and the prison pipeline system.
Look at the adjectives used to describe Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson as well as the rhetoric used to attempt to disqualify her for the U.S. Supreme Court and then ask yourself, “From whence cometh this ignorance and evil?”
Could it be the social construct we call “race?” I say, yes.
This article is part of a series calling attention to the United Nations International Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade (March 25). The previous articles in the series are:
Commemorations Determine What We Remember and Why | Fiona Vernal
Why We Need to Remember | Jim Hill
The Debt America Refuses to Pay: Part 2 | Wendell Griffen
The Debt America Refuses to Pay: Part 1 | Wendell Griffen
Senior pastor of Restoration Ministries of Greater Cleveland. She is the author of Beyond the Stained Glass Ceiling: Equipping and Encouraging Female Pastors.