As Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson sat through her confirmation hearings, I was struck by how calm she was. Usually, when someone picks apart every aspect of our lives, we are defensive, but Judge Jackson answered each question with poise and grace. The voice inside my head reminded me that she had no choice but to display a calm demeanor, not because she didn’t have a good reason to be upset, but because that is what is expected in this country of African Americans if we wish to get ahead.
When I was a child, I was always told “you have to be twice as good to get halfway ahead.” That phrase often faded into the back of my mind as nonsense. Why should I have to work harder than anyone else to get ahead? But as I have grown up, I now realize that African Americans in this country are held to a different standard. We are not allowed to be good or great; we have to be exceptional. Judge Jackson sat calmly in her seat, answering the same questions over and over because she knew that reacting any other way would play into racial stereotypes.
Our country has made significant strides toward building a more perfect union, but we still have quite a bit of work to do. For one thing, we have to build consensus around the notion that systemic racism still permeates our institutions. Despite the ever-growing diversity of our country, our institutions have still not quite caught up with the times. The Supreme Court has existed for over two hundred years, but there have only been six justices from ethnically diverse groups to serve on the high court. It is not a matter of identity politics, but one that reinforces the need for representation.
The first African American to serve as a federal judge was appointed by President Harry Truman in 1949 – a mere 73 years ago. Today, only 22% of federal jurists are from diverse racial or ethnic groups, with even less diversity at the state judiciary level. This is a result of our inability to tackle systemic barriers that have stymied the diversification of the judiciary. It is not lost on me that this lack of representation has contributed to inequities in our justice system. Top of mind for me on this: the high incarceration rates of minorities and stark sentencing disparities in cases across the country.
As communicators and advocates, we rely on our voices to bring positive social change. Our right to freedom of speech as enshrined in the Constitution is fundamental and often brought up before the Supreme Court. The Court’s decisions on what is protected and unprotected speech provide an arena for us to advocate for changes we want to see in the world. For decades the Court has handed down decisions that continue to protect our right to use our words as a tool for change.
I have begun to embark upon my own journey into the legal field, a world where I often feel like an outsider. It is refreshing to see yet another glass ceiling break. Judge Jackson’s confirmation is a reminder that anything is possible, even when it seems impossible. But it is a reminder of that phrase I heard uttered as a child: “You have to be twice as good to get halfway ahead.”
“I look to a day when people will not be judged by the color of their skin, but the content of their character.”
-Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
The confirmation of the first female African American justice, Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to the United States Supreme Court brings me great joy. In Judge Jackson I see the dreams of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. moving closer to reality. I see my mother, my sister, my nieces and my aunts. I only wish my grandmother, Jestine, who grew up in the segregated south and picked cotton as a child were alive to see Judge Jackson ascend to such great heights. It is a reminder that together we can build a more inclusive future. But we can never lose sight of the need to tackle every element of systemic racism in our country. Judge Jackson’s confirmation is a historic first and must not be the last.