“We’ve made it,” said Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson on a bright, sunny afternoon on the South Lawn, as gatherers celebrated the first-ever Black woman to be confirmed to the Supreme Court last week. Jackson cleared the many hurdles, and while that’s cause for celebration, it’s still hard for a Black woman to be optimistic about this moment.
After an unfairly grueling and combative confirmation process, courtesy of a mob of angry, mostly white male Republicans, this occasion feels like a long-awaited miracle—but to witness a Black woman in America ascending to the highest court in the nation is as frightening as it is heartening, right now.
Jackson’s confirmation brings me back to the celebratory reception for former president Barack Obama. Obama, who became commander in chief in a post-9/11 world dangerously headed for a catastrophic economic crisis, faced absurdly high expectations and a massive amount of pressure to deliver for the Black community. Deliver what? I don’t know—anything besides failure, against a Republican-controlled Congress that really, only wanted to see him fail.
Obama, as a Black man with a “Muslim-sounding name,” spent his entire presidency fending off attacks on his legitimacy as the first-ever Black president. His presidency, while historic, faced higher stakes and greater challenges than all the white men who occupied the Oval Office before him.
Jackson got a taste of this pressure during her confirmation hearings, when she was forced to defend herself against accusations that defied reason: Republicans accused of her being soft on pedophilia; they asked her to define the word “woman;” they asked her if babies are racist.
Jackson hardly flinched, because she knew that like Obama, she would be afforded no room for error. No matter how impeccable her demeanor, some people had already decided what kind of person she was.
President Obama pledged to do his best, and we believed him. His win
hypnotized the whole world, and for Black people of all ages, it felt like a restoration of our dignity. Then reality set in.
It turned out the Democratic Black president who shouted “Yes We Can!” on the campaign trail in fact could not do much at all against a Republican Party that relished every opportunity to invalidate the presidency of a Black man. Aside from the Affordable Care Act, Obama was pretty much blocked from enacting any notable legislation at all. Black voters truly believed their Black president would come through and save them from the evils of a system that was built to terrorize, but Obama wasn’t, ultimately, the Black superhero we needed him to be. He never had a chance.
Then we got Trump: the ultimate racist backlash to the nation’s first Black president. That was country’s reaction to Obama; instead of progress, we saw regression.
So now we’re all a bit more cynical, now, as to what this first-ever Black woman on the Supreme Court will bring. Jackson, like Obama, has been elevated as a beacon of hope for Black people, but we’re still living in bitterly divided nation. We watched an insurrection at the Capitol barely a year ago. The mid-term elections are mere months away, and Republicans are expected to sweep them. Members of Congress are giving speeches, in the year 2022, to white nationalist groups. We need to prepare for utter chaos.
President Biden said after Jackson’s historic confirmation vote, “This is going to let so much sun shine on so many young women, so many young Black women, so many minorities.” And, yes, we do rejoice and stand united in admiration and best wishes for this groundbreaking woman. We’re just also a little bit tired.
Making history is noteworthy, but it’s after that that the real work begins. The first Black woman to be confirmed to the Supreme Court may do great things, but she can’t save us from reality, especially on a court that’s still solidly conservative, and in a cultural climate in which Republicans are pulling library books off the shelves because they were written by Black people. We support Ketanji Brown Jackson, and we’re also remaining vigilant.