But, is she qualified? Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson’s exceptional credentials have been presented in every possible media space, offered in every available forum, made accessible to every interested person, yet the question persists…is she qualified?
For professional Black women, this is an all too familiar question.
Even when our myriad successes conspicuously overshadow those of our colleagues, our qualifications are always met with skepticism. We know this personally because this has happened to us.
We are sisters — two of three sisters who have made a career in legal academia (our other two sisters chose medicine and filmmaking as their professions). For one of us, early in her career as a constitutional law professor, a high-ranking university administrator suggested that, perhaps, she was not old enough or white enough to succeed in her chosen discipline.
Like Judge Jackson, the other was told by advisors during her college years that pursuing law school — and certainly Harvard Law School — was too ambitious, even though she was a top student. Nevertheless, we both now stand, as award-winning, tenured constitutional law professors. One, the only tenured law professor of color at her school. The other, the first person of color to be dean of her law school.
Over time, as have many Black women, we have learned that this is the peculiar space we occupy. It means that we remain entangled in a never-ending dance to push out of the boxes people have made for us. But, as Judge Jackson so poignantly stated in her confirmation hearings, we encourage each other to persevere. We push against those boxes. And, we win.
Since President Biden announced Judge Jackson’s nomination, Black women have waited for the infiltration of the type of misleading, ill-intentioned attacks we know always find their way to the center of Black female excellence. With pride, we have watched our dear sister perform flawlessly, with courage and grace, on a national stage where this country’s forefathers did not deem her worthy to stand.
Though her record has been misconstrued during the hearings, we know that Judge Jackson’s excellence is clear. As a federal judge, she has exhibited a measured, thoughtful, individualized approach to federal criminal sentencing that reveals a deep commitment to the rule of law, congressional intent, and community safety.
Judge Jackson’s work also demonstrates an assurance of fairness, as evidenced by her service on the United States Sentencing Commission, where she led a bipartisan effort to reduce the disparate and racially unfair federal drug sentencing laws and policies that have had dire consequences in the Black community for decades. Though her public judicial record plainly reveals that she is well-qualified, we knew that a disingenuous narrative labeling her as something other than an excellent jurist would arise.
What, perhaps, we did not expect was a dizzyingly silly barrage of questions about what fundamental rights may someday exist, whether she is faithful to her religion, if she believes babies can be racist, and why she handed down certain sentences in cherry-picked cases.
We chuckled at the blown-up images of “quotes” and book pages, and were supremely proud at Judge Jackson’s splendid display of grace and extraordinary temperament in responding to such foolish inquiries.
That is when it hit us squarely in the face.
These questions have absolutely nothing to do with her or her qualifications. This political theater was about distracting us from the treasure that is Judge Jackson and focusing us, instead, on those piddling issues about which politicians have decided their voters care.
This country is about to welcome the first Black woman to the United States Supreme Court.
Questions wholly unrelated to Judge Jackson’s qualifications erode the belief in the efficacy of our democracy. They also diminish the celebratory nature of this historic win not just for Black women, but for the entire country. But they will not steal our joy.
As the confirmation process comes to a close, we cannot lose sight of this incredible moment. This country is about to welcome the first Black woman to the United States Supreme Court. We are set to seat a Supreme Court justice who, as a federal public defender, Sentencing Commissioner, and well-respected judge is superbly qualified to hold that revered position.
Finally, Black girls can see themselves in every branch of our federal government and can use those images as motivation when they are told that they are aiming too high.
When we have our next opportunity to teach a constitutional law class, we will have the privilege of teaching doctrine gleaned from Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson’s beautifully-written, thoughtful, and fair majority opinions or compelling, well-reasoned, and inspiring dissents.
Black women can take a breath, knowing that we have pushed our way out of yet another box and that even if others don’t revel in and are not awed by her qualifications, we certainly are. Justice prevails. We win again. And, as always, we sisters persevere.
Jelani Jefferson Exum is the Dean and Philip J. McElroy Professor of Law at University of Detroit Mercy School of Law.
Jalila Jefferson-Bullock is an Associate Professor of Law at Duquesne University School of Law.