The Joy and the Irony of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson
Issue 196 — April 11, 2022
Ketanji Brown Jackson.
Her name is already embedded in the annals of history as the first Black woman confirmed to sit on the Supreme Court of the United States.
After 232 years and 115 previous sitting justices, Judge Brown Jackson will become Justice Brown Jackson when she is sworn in at the end of the Court’s current term.
Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) didn’t hold back tears during the hearings, when he said, “No one’s going to steal my joy,” in contrast to the blatantly racist and sexist attacks on Brown Jackson by the likes of Senators Ted Cruz and Lindsey Graham. Graham looked like his head would spin off his shoulders in faux moral outrage and Cruz’s theatrical performance was apparently staged to garner Twitter response.
We saw the ugliest underbelly at the intersection of race and gender in the blatant attempt to wield power over Brown Jackson, to intimidate her into reacting as she balanced on the sharpest implicit bias two-edged sword. Admirably she did not lose her cool. Instead she exemplified using her personal power to define herself as the brilliant, thoughtful jurist she is.
Booker’s sheer joy was expressed palpably everywhere by Black women and men, and by many others who have been in or resonate with the struggle for equality. While some have been tilling these fields for decades, it was especially moving to see the impact on young Black women who now have a role model of someone who looks like them in the highest halls of power. You could make an entire book from the graphics posted with emotional captions about how much the moment meant.
Speaking on the White House lawn flanked by President Biden and Vice President Harris, Brown Jackson’s comment about being “one generation from segregation to the Supreme Court” sent me to tears of joy and recognition.
I grew up in the segregated South, and the Civil Rights movement taught me most of what I know about what it takes to bend that arc of the moral universe toward justice (to quote Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.). When I was a 20-year-old mom of three in small-town Texas, I was a young woman who felt powerless to speak up for herself but gained strength by speaking up for others.
I learned that people working together, even if they have little formal power, can change anything.
Since then, I’ve written five books. All of them were inspired in some way by what I learned from those early Civil Rights days where my commitment to racial justice was solidified.
At the same time, that experience made me realize that equality for women, often not mentioned, must always be part of the equation.
The Irony of President Joe Biden, who was Senator Joe Biden and chair of the Judiciary Committee that disregarded Anita Hill’s claims of sexual harassment and recommended confirmation of now justice Clarence Thomas.
Anita Hill wrote in the Washington Post: “The Senate Judiciary Committee mistreated Judge Jackson. I should know.”
And well she should. Hill, who appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee chaired by none other than Biden in 1991, reflected, “Women are vulnerable to sexist campaigns aimed at undermining their intelligence and integrity. And women of color must overcome both sexism and racism that is called into play. Ignoring Jackson’s credentials, her critics dismissively labeled her an affirmative action nominee and her opinions as outside the mainstream of acceptable legal reasoning.”
A look at the videos of the Thomas hearings will show a version of Biden that allowed senators on the Republican side to vilify Hill while letting Thomas’s ire overcome objections to his confirmation in 1991. Thomas’s anger presented in ways similar to now-Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s behavior in 2018.
Hill continues in her Washington Post commentary: “While the attacks on Jackson were notable in their intensity, they weren’t without precedent. Critics of Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan were also allowed to lob racially and gender-tinged attacks during their hearings…I have no doubt that the caricaturing of all three women will continue as they become the face of what is bound to be the court’s liberal minority.”
Redemption is possible, fortunately.
After the mistreatment of Anita Hill riled up so many women that it contributed to 1992 becoming a watershed “Year of the Woman,” Biden was persuaded to atone by sponsoring the Violence Against Women Act, legislation that to this day he regards as one of his greatest achievements. And now he has become the president who nominated and saw confirmed the first Black woman to the highest court in the land.
Senator Booker told New York Times columnist Charles Blow that Brown Jackson’s confirmation by the Senate was “a day of healing” that affirmed Black people’s faith in this country.
Amazing things happen when we shift the way we think about power from oppressive power over to generative power TO. Amazing things happen when we use that power TO together for social change. Amazing things happen when people join together to rectify long standing injustices for racial and gender equality, even those that are deeply engrained in the culture.
I wrote in my book Intentioning: Sex, Power, Pandemics, and How Women Will Take The Lead for (Everyone’s) Good about why and how racial and gender justice must go forward together if either is going to succeed. We saw that connection playing out last week. We can acknowledge the irony of how history is sometimes made, and yet concentrate, for now, on the joy.
Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, joyous congratulations on your well-deserved ascent to the Supreme Court.
GLORIA FELDT is the Cofounder and President of Take The Lead, a motivational speaker and expert women’s leadership developer for companies that want to build gender balance, and a bestselling author of five books, most recently Intentioning: Sex, Power, Pandemics, and How Women Will Take The Lead for (Everyone’s) Good. Her signature 9 Leadership Power Tools to Advance Your Career online course is described as “life changing” and “jet fuel for my career” by participants. Former President of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, she teaches “Women, Power, and Leadership” at Arizona State University and is a frequent media commentator. Learn more at www.gloriafeldt.com and www.taketheleadwomen.com. Tweet Gloria Feldt.