This week I meant to file a column about inequities in mental health care for Black and Latino and AAPI people. But I can’t stop thinking about Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson and how her week has been going. As it happens, her Supreme Court confirmation hearing has been a marathon, real-time case study of two themes of my mental health reporting: People of color are subject to extra-heavy doses of stress and emotional labor; and the recognition and support of those who share our experiences and cultures can be a solace and a refuge when we are besieged.
A lot has been said and will be said — and rightly so — about Judge Jackson as a model of “Black excellence.” She is the first Black woman to be nominated to the United States Supreme Court. Like millions of people around the world, I am looking forward to celebrating her confirmation to the highest court in the land. It’s been a long time coming.
The story of her family’s ascent, through hard work and education, to the middle class and positions of public service and influence in Miami is a Great American Story. Like Judge Jackson, I am a child of parents who were raised and educated under segregation. It might be useful to think of us as the first generation children of immigrants from Jim Crow. When Republican Senator Chuck Grassley asked Judge Jackson to attest to what most Republicans seem to think is the only worthwhile thing MLK ever said, the twisted “content of their character” clause from the “I Have a Dream” speech, she replied, “The fact that we had come that far was to me a testament to the hope and the promise of this country. The greatness of America is that in one generation — one generation — we could go from racially segregated schools in Florida to have me sitting here as the first Floridian ever to be nominated to the Supreme Court of the United States.”
As someone who is always identifying herself as a “Virginian,” even though I have lived most of my adult life in the Bay Area, I had to smile when she said that. And let’s recognize the judge’s skillful handling of Grassley: She managed to satisfy his self-serving query without denying how far his far-right interpretation of King’s dream is from what King meant. During her very, very long days before the Senate Judiciary Committee, I saw Judge Jackson thread her way through a sometimes sickening, sometimes maddening barrage of assaults on her record, her intelligence and her decency, with grace and fortitude.
As a Black woman who has never been in the majority in any workplace or classroom, watching what Judge Jackson went through was like witnessing an Olympic-level stress test of a Black woman’s soul. Between my snarky face and my smart mouth, I would not have lasted past the first time one of them asked me to define a “woman.” There’s a reason why some of us are judges and some of us are newspaper columnists.
Do you have to be a first-generation post-Jim Crow Black woman to understand how offensive it was every time South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham bared his teeth and brayed at the judge about the “asses” she represented as a public defender for prisoners in Guantanamo Bay? I understand political performance, but I can also see when that performance is calculated to be insulting to someone because of their race and gender. The stakes are very different; however, Judge Jackson was as trapped between the committee and the cameras as so many women of color watching have been on any ordinary day. We know what it means to be caught in a space where the price of admission is getting past the thugs at the door. Senators Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley resorted to verbal rope-a-dope as they tried to cast Judge Jackson as permissive on pedophilia, a favorite trope of the Q conspiracists. Having read the New York Times story on the case of the 18-year-old she sentenced to three months for possession of child pornography, I see someone who was trying to show compassion and leave open the possibility of a young person’s redemption. (In a similar spirit, that’s why I’m not naming him in this column; even though he is a registered sex offender, I believe he deserves to get on with his life.)
I was so excited by her opening day statement that, in solidarity, I did something I haven’t done in probably a decade: I went to work dressed like a Capitol Hill lady lawyer in a navy skirt suit. Draping a gold statement pendant around my neck, I almost felt like I was getting ready for church. When I heard the judge heading off any questioning of her beautiful and unusual African name, my heart leapt up. I thought, “Take that!” to every white person who has ever expected me to answer for how Black parents choose to name their children. Judge Jackson said that her parents chose to name her Ketanji, which means “lovely,” as an expression of “both pride in their heritage and hope for the future.”
I’m looking forward to waves of Ketanjis and Kamalas in the class of 2040.
“Black excellence” is something we Black people name and claim for ourselves. It’s like the grown folks, Sunday best version of “Black girl magic” — a way of celebrating our strength, resilience, intelligence, beauty and achievement. That’s all good. We need and deserve that validation. But the downside of Black excellence is Black peril, Black exhaustion and Black stress. It can’t be easy being told that you are the reservoir of your race’s highest hopes and dreams. This wears on the soul, too.
There wasn’t another Black woman on the Senate Judiciary Committee to meet Judge Jackson’s eye and give her a break between Republican tantrums. Many of the Democrats yielded time back and introduced lines of questioning that gave her a chance for thoughtful discourse on justice and the role of the courts. And the Republicans weren’t universally awful. On Tuesday, Republican Ben Sasse stood out for modeling respectful disagreement — the kind of thing that wasn’t all that unusual a few decades ago. I know he’s not likely to vote for her confirmation, but it still matters that he showed respect.
While a number of Democrats on the committee praised how well the judge was handling the process, the three senators of color seemed the most sensitive to how she might be experiencing the hearing. Senator Mazie Hirono, the first Asian American woman to be elected to the Senate, lifted the proceedings from the “sunken place” to a cozy space when she got the judge talking about how she turns to the “fiber arts” in times of stress and as a creative outlet. The thought of Mazie Hirono in Ketanji Brown Jackson’s basement yarn barn made me as happy as learning that Toni Morrison and Angela Davis used to carpool into New York City together.
Senator Cory Booker is getting lots of attention for bringing the judge to tears during his emotional declaration of how much “joy” he and so many other Black people are feeling at seeing her on the way to the Supreme Court. Senator Booker can be “extra,” but he wasn’t saying anything that a lot of us weren’t already feeling. When he told her, “You and I, we appreciate something that we get that a lot of our colleagues don’t,” it was a moment I and so many other Black people have been part of. He was making it plain: It took a lot of us and a lot of time and a lot of work and a lot of pain to get to this moment of joy and we have to look up and embrace it.
But it was our junior senator Alex Padilla, the first Mexican American to represent California, who made me cry. He briefly shared his history as the child of hard-working Mexican immigrants and linked his family to the stories of many immigrants, documented or not. He also had an “us” moment with Judge Jackson, noting, “This confirmation hearing has been a reminder and in some ways a new Exhibit A that for people of color, particularly those who have the audacity to try to be the first, often have to work twice as hard to get half the respect.”
Senator Padilla doesn’t gush like Senator Booker, but it was clear that he was getting choked up when he shared his own experience of being discouraged from applying to MIT and turning that into motivation (MIT ‘94). When he asked the judge what she would say to young people, “the most diverse generation in our nation’s history,” she told the story of feeling alone and a little lost in her early days as a Harvard undergrad. She told of crossing paths with another Black woman who looked at her and said one word: “Persevere.”
You don’t have to be a person of color to support a person of color, but it feels different knowing it’s coming from someone who has been where you are and feels invested in where you are headed. We show up for each other even when we don’t know each other. We see each other even when no one knows we’re looking. And this week, millions of us were looking at Judge Jackson and feeling her every step of the way.
Teresa Moore’s columns appear bimonthly in The Examiner.