No one who’s the “first” Black person to do something has an easy story.
Jackie Robinson faced immense intimidation and the spittle of racists. Barack Obama started getting death threats before he was even the Democratic nominee for president. Ruby Bridges, a child, was protested against, threatened and spat on for trying to go to school.
And, unfortunately, it won’t be much different for the first Black woman to be nominated for the U.S. Supreme Court. She won’t be able to take her historic spot in the country’s highest court without America’s premiere racists dusting off their usual playbook.
Though Ketanji Brown Jackson went to Harvard and Harvard Law, served as a federal public defender, clerked for Justice Stephen Breyer and is currently a federal judge, white conservatives are still throwing adult temper tantrums over her qualifications.
When Breyer announced his plan to retire and Biden reiterated his campaign promise to nominate a Black woman for the Supreme Court, the rumblings began. The idea was that Biden was going to pick someone whose only qualification was their identity.
“If you’re a white guy, tough luck. If you’re a white woman, tough luck. You don’t qualify,” Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) said.
Out of 115 judges who have served on the Supreme Court since 1789, only five have been women and only three have been people of color.
Yet you hardly hear anyone questioning the qualifications of the 110 white people appointed to the Supreme Court. And it’s not because they happened to have more experience. In fact, Judge Jackson’s qualifications surpass some of the current judges on the bench.
“She has more experience as a judge than four of the people who are already on the Supreme Court, not that we’re keeping track.” Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) said this week.
It’s not really about her credentials, of course. After all, Amy Coney Barrett had way less experience, and Brett Kavanaugh was accused of sexual assault. So, instead of simply saying that they don’t believe Jackson should be confirmed because she’s a Black woman, they’re pretending what they say has some merit.
It’s unclear who the dog whistles are for. Their leader, former President Donald Trump, traded the whistle for a bullhorn several years ago; it seemed we were beyond dressing raw racism in coded terms.
But alas, Fox News’ Tucker Carlson — who never misses an opportunity to be racist — began harping on LSAT score this week, all while mispronouncing her name.
“Wonder how she did on the LSATs? Why won’t he tell us that? That would settle the question conclusively as to whether she is a once-in-a-generational legal talent, the next Learned Hand,” he said.
For the uninitiated, LSAT is the entrance exam for law school. I am no expert, but it’s probably safe to say that her score was decent — she attended Harvard. But also, her LSAT score is completely irrelevant.
Not only would Jackson be the first Black woman on the Supreme Court, she’d also be the first public defender. These types of lawyers represent the people who cannot afford a private lawyer, which is the vast majority of people charged with crimes in this country. Her background serving the public gives her an advantage in seeing some of the messier parts of the criminal justice system.
But this is not a qualification to conservatives.
As some cities and states deal with a rise in violent crime, which began in 2019, Republicans are taking the opportunity to revive “soft on crime” attacks. And who better to blame than a Black person?
“The Senate must conduct a rigorous, exhaustive review of Judge Jackson’s nomination to the Supreme Court,” Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) tweeted last month. “This is especially crucial as American families face major crises that connect directly to our legal system, such as skyrocketing violent crime and open borders.”
There goes that dog whistle again.
He elaborated in a longer statement this week. “This is a moment when issues relating to the law and the judiciary are directly hitting American families — from skyrocketing murders and carjackings; to soft-on-crime prosecutors effectively repealing laws; to open borders,” Sen. McConnell said. He also implied that Judge Jackson is a left-wing radical supported by “fringe” groups — liberals who want to expand the Supreme Court.
“It’s a matter of record that this nominee was the anointed favorite of these fringe groups…. So I intend to explore why groups that are waging political war against the Court as an institution decided Judge Jackson was their special favorite.”
But there’s no indication that the judge’s legal opinions are anything but mainstream liberal politics.
The GOP’s attacks on an obviously qualified judge are another reminder that respectability politics are a useless framework. Judge Jackson has two degrees from Harvard and is still being accused of not having the credentials to be a Supreme Court judge. It’s almost as if none of this is about who has the qualifications but rather who the right thinks deserves to hold power.
One might think that Republicans simply aren’t in the mood to wage an all-out war against Jackson. After all, her appointment won’t tip the balance of the conservative court, and there are more pressing matters, like the midterm elections this fall, to think about.
So why are conservatives looking for ways to discredit Judge Jackson? Why do Republicans trot out the same tired attacks anytime a person of color is poised to break a glass ceiling?
Conservatism, at least in the United States, is repulsed by a multiracial democracy and Black equality. So the answer is simple. They are morally opposed to the thought of a Black woman in power.
Luckily for those rooting for the right side of history, Ketanji Brown Jackson, like Robinson, Obama and even Bridges before her, is ready for this fight.