In between shocking challenges to her integrity and competency, senators bemoaned that other recent nominees had been treated unfairly. But claims that Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson was treated more fairly than her white counterparts cannot be reconciled with the blatant lack of civility she experienced, unless, of course one thinks she did not deserve respect in the first place. And given that the lack of respect obviously did not stem from a lack of qualifications, it clearly has another source.
Judge Brown Jackson is a Harvard graduate, certainly not lacking in qualifications, and those who opposed her nomination were fresh out of legitimate experience-based critiques. So some turned to their old standbys: racism and misogyny. Misogynoir is a term coined by queer feminist scholar Professor Moya Bailey that encapsulates the specific hatred directed toward Black women, who face discrimination on the basis of both race and gender. Misogynoir explains how a Supreme Court nominee can be dismissed as a lesser Black woman before her name is even announced. It’s hard not to see the same dynamics at play in Judge Brown Jackson’s confirmation experience.
And let’s talk about her name: Ketanji Onyika Brown Jackson.
Many a heart filled with pride when Judge Brown Jackson testified during her Senate confirmation hearing that her parents gave her an African name. Studies have long shown that résumés with names that sounded too ethnic, too Black, are treated negatively by employers—qualifications be damned. The Senate is not immune to such biases: empirical research also underscores the “presumption of incompetence” that members of marginalized groups must overcome, and the difference in treatment between judicial nominees who are people of color or white women when compared to white men. The cumulation of racial bias, coupled with gender discrimination, has kept the bench too white and too male for far too long. These confirmation hearings were an opportunity to see up close, and in real time, the heinous discrimination Black women face in the legal profession.
As predicted, Judge Brown Jackson’s qualifications were interrogated during the hearings, but in fact, the American Bar Association gave her its highest praise and recommendation. As part of her impressive background, she brings to the table the unique experience of having served as a public defender—something no other Supreme Court nominee has ever done. Judge Jackson has 8.9 years of prior experience on the bench, more than four current justices (Clarence Thomas, John Roberts, Elena Kagan, and Amy Coney Barrett) had combined when they were questioned by the Senate. Professional and demographic diversity has tangible benefits on judicial decision-making and allows courts to better serve the population, but for the Supreme Court’s entire multi-century history, such diversity has been sorely lacking.
For example, Senator Ted Cruz interrogated Judge Brown Jackson about the work of another Black woman, Nikole Hannah-Jones, author of The 1619 Project, because she mentioned Hannah-Jones’s work in a speech. Ironically, the speech was about the unsung contributions of Black women to the civil rights movement. For the offense of lifting Black women up, Judge Brown Jackson was shouted down.
Senator Marsha Blackburn questioned Judge Brown Jackson as to whether or not she has a “personal hidden agenda to incorporate critical race theory” into the American legal system. Senator Blackburn also went on to rail against contraceptives, revealing yet again that startling anti-feminist attacks can come from women.
Judge Jackson endured white senators repeatedly quoting Martin Luther King, Jr., at her and asking if it is racist to combat racism. She was interrupted and talked over. And her work protecting and upholding constitutional rights as a federal public defender and later as a judge were grossly mischaracterized, disparaged, and attacked.
Against tremendous odds, she demonstrated her incredible preparation, competence, and an even temper through the entire proceedings. But there is a special kind of violence in having to endure abuse with a smile on your face. Men can scream, cry, spew sarcasm, and and otherwise rant without their outbursts posing an obstacle to their confirmation. The same isn’t true of women, who are already stereotyped as emotional and unfit for leadership. Black women in particular have to patiently overperform in order to combat racist tropes of the “angry Black woman.” And these pictures from the respective confirmation hearings of Judge Brown Jackson and Justice Kavanaugh are worth several thousand words.
Despite the senatorial antics, Ketanji Onyika Brown Jackson will likely prevail and receive a lifetime appointment. She reflected on other historic additions to the federal judiciary, saying during her hearing, “It’s not necessarily easy to be the first, but it’s an opportunity to show other people what’s possible.” A Black woman on the Supreme Court is now possible. We must make a path to the judiciary—free of misogynoir—possible, too.
Madiba Dennie is counsel for the Brennan Center’s Democracy program.
Kate Kelly is and attorney and author of Ordinary Equality: The Fearless Women and Queer People Who Shaped the U.S. Constitution and the Equal Rights Amendment.