Unlike several friends and colleagues, I initially opted to refrain from watching the historic confirmation hearings of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson. As an African American person, I am keenly aware of the fragility that transformative moments cause insecure white men in spaces they once solely occupied. I choose to forgo my seat at the circus because of my deep understanding and experience with the system of racism and white supremacy. Perhaps as a means of silent protest, or protection, I did not want to make myself emotionally available to witness the deep-seeded vitriol of Senators Ted Cruz of Texas, Josh Hawley of Missouri, and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina — all white men going to overzealous and scrupulous lengths to discredit, arguably, the most qualified nominee of the modern era. I was not alive to witness the historic nomination of the great Thurgood Marshall. Justice Brown Jackson is the Thurgood Marshall of this generation, and her candidacy is both transformative and the litmus test of our country’s ethos as we still grapple with our racial gene in a post George Floyd America. A country seemingly incapable of acknowledging the intricacies and intersections of systemic oppression who has shown zero interest in securing justice for another maligned black woman, Breonna Taylor. As the attacks continued to be lobbied against presumed Justice Brown Jackson, I received more text messages about the heinous line of questioning, and it was clear that I should retreat to my home office and spend some time on CSPAN. What I saw wasn’t surprising; it was a sad spectacle devoid of the reverence and dignity the moment deserved. It was America, giving airtime to jesters dressed as statesmen and consequently mocking the sanctity of the historic moment for the highest court in the land.
The line of questioning and the ways in which Judge Brown Jackson was able to keep her composure speaks to the psychological trauma that black people experience in and while navigating white spaces in a country that they love more than often loves them. Watching the hearings reminded me of the importance of protecting the humanity of black women who, like no other human beings on this earth, are under siege by so many and disregarded by so many more. As a youngster I learned about the genius of Constance Baker Motley. If you are familiar with her journey from clerk to Thurgood Marshall to becoming the first Black woman to argue a case on the Supreme Court it is important to understand the intentional and calculated strategy to undermine her brilliance, just as policymakers who are charged to execute fairness through policy have demonstrated with their treatment of Judge Brown Jackson. This nomination and the heinous hearing Brown Jackson endured, must activate Black men to remember that Black women are not only often forgotten or downtrodden en masse, but they are also the most steadfast champions for Black men seeking a safe space for their bodies, their being, and their genius in the world. The behaviors of the male Senators, along with Marsha Blackburn, are strategic dog whistles to a populace that endorses the idea of an America that will go to any length to keep itself White enough to control any creation of true long-lasting equity and access to “minorities” — despite their ever-shrinking majority. The fear mongering, teeth gnashing and gaslighting is old at this point. It appears that when faced with the fear of losing any modicum of power or privilege White men quickly devolve into the irrational, base, thuggish caricatures they paint Black and Brown people to be. Even resorting to tears — ala Brett Kavanaugh.
Black men aren’t the only ones it’s incumbent upon to remind folks of the expectation that Judge Brown Jackson is to be treated with decency and respect equal to her scholarship and service. Sojourner Truth and Ida B. Wells called out the silence of White women, and it is not lost on me that the women of the Greater Boston area have not boisterously rallied around a woman who attended school in this community, and whose family is still connected. Just as black men need to do away with any by standing and champion this monumental moment, White women who claim to be allies have a golden opportunity to unearth how the structures of our unbalanced democracy not only subjugate them but seek an understanding of Alice Walker’s urgent need to introduce concept of Womanism. It is the intersection of the fight for gender, class, and Black liberation up against the violence perpetuated by systems such as racism, sexism, colorism, classism, elitism, and ableism that allies must study and mount against in arms of defense for Judge Brown Jackson. The most effective chin checks come from close range. Self-proclaimed progressive White women must activate their proximity to privilege and speak to how the degradation they have endured is only compounded for women of color. Resonating with Brown Jackson’s laments about work/life balance is not enough. Finding her weeping husband endearing is not enough. Full throated allyship must be bold and clear. Acknowledging the additional hurdles Brown Jackson has had to jump is a start. Judge Brown Jackson deserves the same energy used to mobilize for Hilary Clinton’s historic Democratic nomination and the pain exuded from the loss of Ruth Bader Ginsberg. The same respect, momentum and action should be applied to denouncing the patriarchal condescension and political parroting Judge Brown Jackson suffered.
It needs to be noted that Harriet Jacobs is buried a stone throw away from Harvard Law School where Judge Brown Jackson attended. Jacobs’ narrative Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl which speaks of inhumane treatment and the neglect of well-intended White women. The Senators who assailed Judge Jackson were simply proxies for white supremacy. As a tenured Professor I have learned to be armed against the slights and exclusion purported by systems that uphold white male patriarchy. Education, emotional maturity and a dogged work ethic have been my shields, but my battles though brutal, pale in comparison to those of Black women I serve with in academia who find themselves locked out the boys’ clubs and women’s circle alike.
A younger me would admit this reluctantly; proximity to the brilliance, magnetism, elegant humility and unfairly earned resilience of Black women inspires great admiration, but also a deep measure of oneself. I attended Morehouse College, right across the yard from Spelman College, an incubator of a bevy of geniuses — far more talented and focused than most can imagine. As a refined human, and evolving Black man, I understand that the poise and intellect displayed by Judge Brown Jackson and countless of my Spelman sisters should not be mistaken for ease, nonchalance, or haughtiness. As a father rearing a Black boy in a world that will seek to undermine him in spaces marred with micro-aggressions, I must prepare him to not only look out for himself, but to look out for the Black women in his midst.
President Biden and his supporters have an opportunity to protect Judge Brown Jackson in ways in which it failed to do with Anita Hill. A similar archetype of white men sought to destroy the credibility and character of Anita Hill, a black woman with the same vitriol as Brown Jackson. Their crass speculation and bias reinforce the default position of white male fragility when facing off against brilliant Black women. Men like Justice Clarence Thomas and Brett Kavanaugh have been coddled and crumbled when faced with serious questions related to character, while the Judge Brown Jacksons of the world continue to show grace under fire. Having their credibility and credentials cut down by men who can’t hold a candle to their achievements or bear to see them shine. Far too often black folks walk into courtrooms with waning hope for a fair and balanced distribution of justice. How sad the irony that despite the stellar qualifications of Brown Jackson, the scourge of Jim Crow has been heaped upon her as she ascends to take a seat in her rightfully appointed place.
Tony Clark is a Professor of African American Literature and The Co-Founder and Co-President of The My Brother’s Keeper Cambridge Taskforce.