Supreme Court Nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson arrives for a meeting with Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) on April 4, 2022. Photo by Kevin Dietsch | Getty Images
There are days, now more than ever in my life, when I don’t really know what direction “the arc of the moral universe” is bending.
On March 31, 1968, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., quoting a 19th-century abolitionist and minister named Theodore Parker, used those words in what would regrettably be his final Sunday sermon when he reminded us that the moral arc “is long, but it bends toward justice.”
Five days later, in the cruelest of ironies, King would be gunned down by a white supremacist as he stood outside of a hotel room in Memphis, Tenn. On April 4, the country marked the 54th anniversary of his assassination.
Today, maybe even most days, King’s dream of a world where we’re all judged less by the color of our skin than the content of our character still seems so far out of reach. Thursday, however, was not one of those days, thanks to the brilliance and perseverance of one woman: Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson.
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The U.S. Senate this week confirmed Jackson’s nomination to the Supreme Court, which will make her the first African American woman in U.S. history to serve on our nation’s highest court when she takes her seat this summer. Jackson will replace Justice Stephen Breyer when he retires at the end of the current term in June or July.
Jackson’s achievement — her lifetime of achievements — gives me lots of hope. Her accomplishments, remarkable by any measure, reinforce the idea that hard work, talent and tenacity can pay off, even in the face of systemic racism and misogyny. Let’s face it: Most of this country’s major institutions are still controlled by white men, many of whom have little interest in promoting real social, racial or gender equity.
Recalling how I was moved to tears, as a Latino, when Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who is Puerto Rican, was sworn in by Chief Justice John Roberts in 2009, I can only start to imagine what Jackson’s confirmation must mean to African Americans, especially Black women and girls.
Jackson may be the first, but the pipeline that produced her is growing, ensuring that she will not be the last. Rest assured that there will be many more Black women, and women of color in general, who will be inspired to pursue their dreams by Jackson’s singular achievement.
But if Jackson’s confirmation to the court can be read as a palpable symbol of democracy (and I believe it can), it must also be viewed in the context of powerful and troubling countervailing forces. While nearly half of Americans recently surveyed said they supported Jackson’s confirmation, the truth is that a wide swath of Americans will regard Jackson’s appointment as a threat to their power and status.
The treatment of Jackson that we witnessed during last month’s confirmation hearings by several Republican senators was detestable and revealing. Revealing, in that the hearings were supposed to explore whether Jackson was qualified to do the job. Instead, Republican senators like Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley, both of whom aspire to be president, used it as a means to appeal to their party’s so-called base, which in this case means that powerful segment of the party that refuses to accept that a Black person, let alone a Black woman, could be their equal, much less their judge.
As ugly a turn as American politics has taken since the 1992 election of Bill Clinton — who, we have to admit it, helped contribute to our nation’s civic devolution — I’m convinced that our most alarming political shift came in the wake of Barack Obama’s election.
Ideologically, Obama is basically a left-leaning but moderate Democrat. The Republican base, however, just saw a Black man, his stellar qualifications be damned, who didn’t deserve to be president. Two things happened after Obama’s election that speak volumes about the Republican base. Membership in white supremacist groups jumped dramatically and white men began stockpiling a lot more guns. The “apocalypse,” they apparently thought, was right around the corner.
Nearly 15 years later, the Justice Department reports that the single greatest domestic terror threat is not foreign but homegrown — namely, white supremacist groups, all of whom despise Obama to this day. And it’s no surprise this is the same crowd that attacked the U.S. Capitol on January 6 in an attempt to overthrow our government on behalf of then-President Donald Trump — the same guy, by the way, who spent years spreading false claims that Obama wasn’t a U.S. citizen. (Translation: No Black person deserves to be president.)
Now comes the appointment of a Black woman, replete with an African-sounding first name, to the U.S. Supreme Court by none other than Obama’s former Vice President Joe Biden.
So, yes, Jackson’s confirmation to the Supreme Court is a powerful symbol of America’s romantic “land-of-opportunity” ideals. But we also need to expect that far-right extremists in the U.S. will read it as another call to arms.
While Jackson’s confirmation affirms our democracy, it is a democracy under threat.
The same Republican senators who tried their best to defame Jackson during the confirmation hearings by insinuating that she favored pedophiles, Nazis and international terrorists over their victims are all part of a movement led by Trump that’s determined to win the upcoming midterm elections and presidential election in 2024 by whatever means possible, including by restricting the voting rights of anyone they regard as their political opponents.
On Thursday, in what can only be read as a big f*** you to Biden, Jackson, and democracy in general, instead of applauding her confirmation, all but three Republicans (the three who supported her) punctuated their infantile and white supremacist point by walking out of the Senate chamber en masse when Vice President Kamala Harris, also a Black woman, announced the final 53-47 Senate vote in favor of Jackson’s confirmation.
The walkout wasn’t just rude, it was an insult to the democratic process, the playground equivalent of grabbing your marbles and not letting anyone else play just because you lost.
Ultimately, Jackson’s confirmation reinforced my hope that most Americans, like me, want this country to keep marching forward toward a more equitable and just society, a march incidentally that only really began in earnest with the passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts of the mid 1960s.
But here’s the thing about “the moral arc”: If we really want the moral arc to bend toward justice, a lot more of us are going to have to stand up and bend in that direction ourselves.
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