The Trial of Justice Jackson: a Retrospective

by Zeynip Kilik, The Opportunity Agenda

I am the dream and the hope of the slave.

Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson quoted the great Maya Angelou in her historic confirmation speech on April 8, 2022. She stated, “In my family, it took just one generation to go from segregation to the Supreme Court.”

Justice Jackson will be starting her first term with the now highly-unpopular Supreme Court, following a summer of polarizing decisions, ranging from easing firearm restrictions to restricting abortion access. Nevertheless, her history-making SCOTUS confirmation process— which was broadcast on a national scale—was an enormous and inspiring moment for our country, particularly for women of color. As many of us watched last spring, rapt with attention, we witnessed the standard Senate proceedings to “advise and consent” on the president’s choice for Supreme Court justice swiftly turn into what seemed like a Kafkaesque trial not on qualifications, but instead on her morality.

This confirmation signaled a beacon of hope to many – especially during a time when hope is an extremely finite resource. Yet to get to this moment, Judge Jackson faced conspiracies, false truths, and constant belittlement. One cannot help but compare Justice Amy Coney Barrett’s accelerated confirmation and appointment following Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s passing to Ketanji Brown Jackson’s arduous process. During this process, Senator Lindsay Graham stated: “But if we [the Republican Party] are in charge [of the Senate], [Judge Jackson] would not have been before this committee. You would have had somebody more moderate than this.” Even Senator Roy Blunt, despite hailing Judge Jackson’s nomination as a qualified judge and a “high point for the country”, publicly stated that he would not vote for her confirmation. This disproportionate treatment was especially exacerbated by Senator Marsha Blackburn’s incendiary line of questioning. All of this, followed by the 22-member panel deadlocking on her nomination along party lines, reached new heights of insult and frustration for the nominee, and for all watching.

Maybe the sobering truth is that this kind of behavior happens every day for people of color – and is not only reserved for high-profile Supreme Court confirmation processes. BIPOC folks have had to endure generations of disenfranchisement and continue to face larger hurdles than their white peers. So many examples come to mind. I remember reading Sohla El-Waylly’s (previously a featured chef on the Bon Appetit channel and assistant food editor for the magazine) Instagram story in the summer of 2020 when she opened up about her experience with the publication. She was not compensated proportionally for her work compared to her white counterparts and expressed her discomfort with the magazine Editor in Chief, Adam Rapaport’s, use of brownface for a Halloween costume in 2013. Or the February 2022 lawsuit filed by the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing details the experiences of over 4,000 former and current Black workers at Tesla’s Fremont factory.

Filed on behalf of the workers, this suit alleges that Black workers were segregated and given the most strenuous tasks in an area of the factory dubbed “the plantation” by factory co-workers. Employees described a workplace where racist slurs were hurled at Black employees, with Monica Chatman stating that her time with Tesla was like “modern-day slavery”. Experiences like this can lead to racial trauma, where individuals can face an increased risk of physical and mental health issues, and can impact daily functioning at school, work, or at home. Despite countless pledges by corporate America to commit to diversity and inclusion, many BIPOC employees are hesitant to return to their physical workspaces.

Despite all this, we must not forget the enormity of Ketanji Brown Jackson’s appointment to the Supreme Court. No matter how onerous her journey was, it is something to be reflected upon with tremendous pride and accomplishment. We finally have the first Black woman serving on our nation’s highest court.

Let’s use this moment to look forward and act proactively in our everyday spaces. The basic recommendations are clear: vote in all elections, support your local community leaders, continue to lift minority and BIPOC voices. We can also start a change in our culture by the way we communicate. Our messaging research findings recommend:

We’re all faced with misleading, inaccurate, and untruthful statements about our issues. And we certainly can’t allow misinformation to go unchallenged. But the best way to counter false information is to tell our affirmative story in ways that overcome the other side’s falsehoods. By contrast, we should avoid myth-busting, or restating the false argument and then explaining why it’s wrong. Research and experience show that this only results in deepening the myth in our audiences’ minds. The better approach is to proactively tell our own story.

Justice Jackson’s membership in the Supreme Court more brightly illuminates our nation’s potential for progress and inclusion. Furthermore, her position on the Supreme Court, albeit a heavily conservative Court, is now more meaningful and impactful than ever. Both in looking back and beyond, it is clear that the road to opportunity for all is a marathon, not a sprint.

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