Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson was confirmed by the US Senate on April 7, 2022 to become the next Justice to join the Supreme Court of the United States. I won’t soon forget the moment when US Vice-President Kamala Harris announced the result, 53-47, with three Republican Senators joining all Democrats: the jubilation and prolonged applause in the Senate chamber after the vote, spoke volumes. At a White House ceremony the next day, Jackson noted that it took 232 years and 115 prior appointments for a Black woman to be selected to serve on the Supreme Court. “But we’ve made it. We’ve made it. —ALL OF US,” she affirmed, speaking to Black women everywhere. It was impossible not to be deeply moved when Jackson, describing her family’s trajectory from grade school education and segregation to the highest court in the US, quoted Dr. Maya Angelou’s famous poem: “Bringing the gifts that my ancestor gave, I am the dream and the hope of the slave.” An incredibly uplifting and hopeful moment.
The hearings on Jackson’s nomination, held in March 2022, were another matter. They were an absolute disgrace—for those who had the stomach to watch them. Judge Jackson was subjected by Republican Senators to a barrage of questions and diatribes that were … how can they be described? Outrageous, insulting, hostile, bizarre and ominous. They interrupted her, talked over her, and shouted at her. The proceedings were a travesty, a low point in the work of the US Senate, a body that has known other low points in its history.
When she takes her seat, Judge Jackson will likely be the most qualified jurist on the Court.
Jackson served on the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia and on the District Court; is a Harvard Law School graduate; was previously an editor of the Harvard Law Review, a law clerk to US Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer and to two other federal judges, a public defender and a member of the United States Sentencing Commission, among other achievements. Her nomination received a ringing endorsement by the American Bar Association. Just about every Republican Senator who voted against her nomination prefaced their vote by noting what a qualified candidate and wonderful, decent person she is. She is Black excellence personified; she had to be in order to be confirmed by this Senate. Racism and sexism are alive and well in the US, and Black women face particularly severe obstacles to advancement in all areas.
After the hearings, I consulted bell hooks’ classic work of Black feminist scholarship, “Ain’t I a Woman: black women and feminism,” which was first published in 1981. Professor hooks (she spelled her pen name in lower case) died in December 2021, at the too young age of 69. Her groundbreaking writing on the interrelationships of race, gender and class—what later became known as intersectionality—forced a rethinking of white feminist politics that is still incomplete as I write these words. hooks made a point of writing in accessible language, and she spared no one—neither white women, nor Black men—in her analysis. “Ain’t I a Woman” provides an enlightening framework for understanding the particular barriers Black women face in the US, and perhaps beyond.
In “Ain’t I a Woman,” hooks researches and analyzes the status of Black women in the US, and particularly the “systemic devaluation of black [sic] womanhood.” She outlines how slavery imposed a particular burden on Black women, and shaped their image through powerful stereotypes that persist to this day: “ … the two forces, sexism and racism, intensified and magnified the sufferings and oppressions of black women…. Those sufferings peculiar to black women were directly related to their sexuality and involved rape and other forms of sexual assault.” White men and women justified this systematic sexual exploitation and rape of enslaved Black women by white men by labeling Black women as sexually promiscuous, as immoral “jezebels and sexual temptresses.” In turn, patriarchal norms ensured that this systematic rape further devalued Black women.
hooks also notes that being forced to work in the fields led to a “masculinization” of Black women. “Proper women” (e.g., privileged white women) did not do the back-breaking work of picking cotton or harvesting sugarcane, but Black women were described as able to endure extraordinary physical burdens, pain and deprivation. “Ain’t I a Woman?” was the question Black anti-slavery and women’s rights activist Sojourner Truth is said to have asked the 1851 Ohio Women’s Rights Convention as she demanded equal rights for ALL women.
After slavery formally ended, the archetype of the Black matriarch arose, to co-exist with those two other tropes. Black women went into paid work to support their families; they were therefore described, in the sexual politics of the era, as domineering in their households, driving their men away and undermining the Black family. hooks notes: “By shifting the responsibility for the unemployment of black men onto black women and away from themselves, white racist oppressors were able to establish a bond of solidarity with black men based on mutual sexism.” The angry, emasculating Black woman joined the pantheon.
Thinking back on the harassment that Republican Senators inflicted on Jackson, I could see disturbing (and utterly ineffectual) attempts to pin those stereotypes on her and to make her get angry and impatient. Insulting and inappropriate questions like:
“Do you think we should catch and imprison more murderers or fewer murderers?” (Senator Tom Cotton, R-Arkansas); “…are babies racist?” “I’m a Hispanic man. Could I decide I was an Asian man?” (Senator Ted Cruz, R-Texas); “So, what personal hidden agendas do you harbor or do you think other judges harbor?”, “Do you agree that schools should teach children that they can choose their gender?”, “Can you provide a definition for the word ‘woman’?” (Senator Marsha Blackburn R-Tennessee), and “What faith are you, by the way?” (Senator Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina). When Jackson replied that she’s a non-denominational Protestant, Graham asked whether she could “fairly judge a Catholic.”
Most disturbing were the repeated attempts by Senators Cruz and Josh Hawley (R-Missouri) to connect Judge Jackson to child pornography and pedophilia. Hawley spent over 30 minutes repeatedly asking Judge Jackson about child pornography and sex offender cases she had presided over as a District Judge. It was bizarre and deeply troubling to watch Hawley describe, with what seemed to be a prurient interest, the content of videos of acts of sexual violence against children. For his part, Cruz used 15 minutes of his time to state (without evidence) that Judge Jackson had “a record of activism and advocacy as it concerns sexual predators … that is concerning.” Jackson responded by calmly explaining the role of judges in sentencing. Yet, given the obsession of violent right-wing conspiracy theorists with alleged child trafficking rings and pedophiles, I was shaken by what I saw and heard. Cruz and Hawley were clearly impugning Jackson’s sexual morality and encouraging violence against her.
Of course, the Republican Party has now fully jumped the shark into Trumpism, and its white supremacist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, insurrectionist and anti-democratic views are now proudly worn as badges. They would harass any nominee put forward by a Democratic President. But Jackson being a highly accomplished Black woman surely had a lot to do with the high level of disrespect exhibited by (white, needless to say) Republican Senators.
Yet these Senators were unable to make their accusations stick. Judge Jackson calmly rebutted and outmaneuvered them, or simply let the Senators ramble on, with only fleeting signs of exasperation in her expression. She could not be caricatured or reduced to a stereotype. Her command of her material, brilliance, character, profile and qualifications—her entire being—foiled the attacks. Still, she rises.
Needless to say, Black women shouldn’t have to be so much better than everyone else to become Supreme Court Justices or anything else they set their sights on. We should celebrate Jackson’s excellence, but also recognize the ridiculous standards required of Black women and call out and remove the barriers, prejudices and stereotypes.
And I’d take a dozen KBJs on the US Senate, urgently!