Opinion: Judge Jackson’s long journey to the court — and ours
“In my family, it took just one generation to go from segregation to the Supreme Court of the United States.”
Sometimes history can be summed up in a single sentence of naked simplicity. But there were all kinds of complex elements squeezed in between every vowel and consonant in that declaration by incoming Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson on Friday in a ceremony on the White House South Lawn.
Jackson will become the first Black woman to serve on the highest court in the land — and the fervent applause she received after delivering that line was a powerful homage to both her journey and that of the country she serves.
But to understand the full importance of her ascent you need to dwell on the word that sits like a leaden anchor at the center of that sentence: segregation.
Jackson was born in 1970, when the victories of the civil rights movement were beginning to manifest themselves in housing, employment, sports, education and entertainment. But racial divisions remained stark after decades of legally sanctioned segregation that followed 250 years of legal enslavement of Blacks.
Because neither the passage of laws nor the dismantling of racial codes erased the deeply ingrained narrative of racial inferiority. America had long been invested in the separation of races and, to be more specific, the automatic privilege that comes with White skin. The vestiges of slavery and segregation are still with us, and yet we find ourselves in a time when the party that so viciously opposed Jackson’s nomination wants to eviscerate the teachings and discussions of our nation’s racial history and focus instead on the progress America has made.
They argue that we should not dwell on all that old-timey stuff like chains and shackles, dogs and hoses, or white hoods and black bodies swinging from trees. Well, to understand and fully appreciate the progress we’ve made, you need more than a passing understanding of the dark places Americans dwelled within the sanction of law to keep bodies in bondage, to keep people oppressed, to keep human beings in a subjugated state that mocks the core tenets of our Constitution.
And if you understand that history, you can quickly and clearly see how the waves of disrespect hurled at Jackson in the past month cut too close to the casual and constant denigration of Black people, and especially Black women, over centuries in this country.
She was interrupted. She was called a liar. She was asked about anti-racist textbooks that have little to do with her work on the bench. Her record was distorted. Her accomplishments were belittled. Senators addressed her in loud and hostile tones and language that wholly lacked the commensurate respect for the nominee or the process or even the building where the hearing took place.
If you can bring yourself to even glance at our painful racial past, the behavior of some of the senators leaves a particularly foul aftertaste. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) held up Jackson’s confirmation vote for half an hour and eventually cast his vote from the cloakroom, a private meeting space off the Senate floor. Trifling is not a word one likes to apply to lawmakers, but how else do you describe that kind of loutish behavior? Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) didn’t wear a tie for the vote, which meant he could not appear on the Senate floor. He too cast a no vote from the cloakroom.
His office released a video from a news conference earlier in the day where he railed once again that President Biden should have taken his advice to nominate a preferable Black nominee from his home state. He managed to find a tie for thatperformance.
The people who opposed this nomination spent a lot of energy suggesting that Jackson was some kind of less-qualified affirmative action hire because her elevation fulfilled Biden’s campaign pledge to nominate a Black woman to the Supreme Court. You didn’t hear that kind of howling years ago when Ronald Reagan pledged to nominate a woman before settling on Sandra Day O’Connor. One of the worst remnants of all those years of segregation is a latent assumption that Black people are inherently less qualified. It’s a lie. It’s always been a lie, and Jackson’s sparkling intellect and cool under pressure should remind us that America has been robbed of this kind of genius and talent for centuries, because women and all kinds of people of color have too often been kept out of consideration.
In the end, when Jackson was confirmed and the chamber broke out in thunderous applause, most Republican senators left the room like sore losers. (Utah’s Mitt Romney was an exception.) This was so much worse than athletes sulking off the field instead of rolling through the handshake line. This was refusing to show respect to a woman now charged with acting in the best interest of all Americans. That is what service at the highest levels is all about: acting in the interest of all Americans.
They could not stop her nomination, so they would not applaud it or show her the respect she deserves. But they will have to accept her confirmation as fact. Her name will someday grace schools, libraries and public buildings; her face will smile down from massive public murals; her words will likely be carved into stone for schoolchildren to memorize. They cannot stop that."