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Ketanji Brown Jackson is making history. Some Black women leaders are wary of how she’ll be questioned.

The judge’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings start Monday

(Washington Post illustration; Jacquelyn Martin/AP; iStock)
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On Monday, Ketanji Brown Jackson will make history when she appears in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee as the first Black woman nominated to the Supreme Court. And many Black women in politics already know how — and with whom — they’ll watch.

Kim Tignor, co-founder of She Will Rise, an initiative that launched in the summer of 2020 to advocate for a Black woman justice on the Supreme Court, will bring her 6-year-old and 10-year-old daughters to a Monday morning rally on the steps of the Supreme Court in support of Jackson.

Glynda Carr, president and chief executive of Higher Heights, an organization and political action committee dedicated to supporting Black women in office and leadership roles, is looking forward to her 6-year-old Black goddaughter being able to watch the hearings.

And Nadia Brown, a professor of government and chair of the women’s and gender studies program at Georgetown University, is conscious of how her three Black daughters are living through a “moment for Black women in politics” — first with the election of Vice President Harris, and now with Jackson being nominated to the high court.

“Black women were not seen as political kingmakers, and now we are,” Brown said. “This is a moment where all eyes are on Black women, and rightfully so.”

Ahead of Supreme Court confirmation hearing, Ketanji Brown Jackson’s stances on key issues

But while Tignor, Carr and Brown are excited about what Jackson’s nomination means for the Black girls in their lives, they’re also among a half-dozen Black women leaders and experts who said they’re apprehensive about how members of the Senate Judiciary Committee will treat Jackson during the hearings. They’re particularly wary that Republican senators will seek to question her qualifications, they say.

“We celebrate the gains we’ve made, but I think we also recognize that everyone’s going to uniquely be paying attention to … the intersection of racism and sexism and party politics that could enter into the discourse,” Carr said.

The American Bar Association on Friday gave Jackson a unanimous rating as “well-qualified” — its highest rating — to serve on the high court. Jackson, 51, is a graduate of Harvard Law School who clerked for Supreme Court Justice Stephen G. Breyer and has served as a federal appeals judge. She has also served as a district court judge and public defender.

The caution that Carr and other Black women are feeling ahead of this week’s hearings has multiple causes, they say, including how some Republicans have sought to undermine Jackson’s qualifications in the weeks since President Biden announced her nomination; the biases other women nominees — and women of color nominees in particular — have faced in seeking some of the most elite jobs in government; and Black women’s own lived experiences facing discrimination in hiring processes and feeling like they’re held to higher standards than White and male candidates.

“What I’m not fearful of is whether she can handle the confirmation: She’s a stellar candidate, she has the credentials, she has the qualifications, she’s uniquely prepared for this particular position in this moment,” LaTosha Brown, co-founder of the voting rights organization Black Voters Matter, said of Jackson. “What the concern to me is, will the Republicans engage this in good faith and with a sense of integrity?”

Ketanji Brown Jackson’s Supreme Court confirmation hearing starts Monday. Here’s what you need to know.

‘I think they’re going to weaponize the fact that … she’s Black’

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has promised that the hearings will be a “serious and dignified process” and said that Jackson will probably be confirmed. Other conservatives have said she is an excellent pick.

But based on some Republicans’ lines of attacks the past few weeks — which included McConnell characterizing Jackson as soft on crime, Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) tweeting that her nomination amounted to a win for the “radical Left,” and Fox News host Tucker Carlson demanding to see her LSAT scores — the Black women leaders who spoke to The Washington Post said they’re still bracing themselves for Republicans’ lines of questioning.

Melanie Campbell, president and chief executive of the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation, a nonpartisan organization focused on increasing voter participation in Black and underserved communities, sees those attacks as part of a racist legacy in which Jackson could be held to a higher standard than a White nominee would.

“As Black people, that’s not something new for us, so that’s why we can’t afford to take anything for granted going through this process,” said Campbell, who is also the convener of the organization’s empowerment-focused Black Women’s Roundtable.

Brown, the Georgetown professor, characterized the nature of some Republicans’ attacks on Jackson so far as reflective of the party’s struggle to mount an effective attack against her: “Because they don’t have a clear message and they’re trading in these cultural and ad hominem attacks, they have a reason to go low,” she said.

The fact that it’s a midterm year makes partisanship all the more likely at the hearings, and some Republicans may use their questions as opportunities to make political statements and speak to issues that appeal to their base, experts added.

Brown, of Black Voters Matter, anticipates Republicans’ playbook will manifest through questions that seek to undermine Jackson’s qualifications and mischaracterize her, along with questions based on buzzwords that Republicans have used to rally their base — including critical race theory, an academic framework that holds that racism against people of color is systemic and woven into legal systems and institutions.

“I think they’re going to weaponize what makes her of value, the fact that she’s bringing a unique perspective to the court,” she said. “I think they’re going to weaponize the fact that, quite frankly, she’s Black.’

A higher bar for women nominees

The worries that some Black women leaders harbor about how Jackson will be treated aren’t unfounded. A 2018 study published in the Law & Society Review analyzed data from Supreme Court confirmation hearings from 1967 to 2010 and found that “female nominees are often subjected to a very different confirmation process than are their male colleagues.” The study notes that women nominees received more questions on their judicial philosophies from male senators of the opposite party than male nominees did.

That’s significant because “that is an area that gets at qualification and gets at competence to be a justice,” said co-author Christina Boyd, an associate professor of political science at the University of Georgia.

The study did not analyze the effects of nominees’ race and gender simultaneously, given the small number of nominees of color overall. But the co-authors’ analysis of the nomination hearings of Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor — the only woman of color in their data set — found that she, along with Justices Samuel Alito and Sandra Day O’Connor, received the highest percentage of judicial philosophy questions. Many other questions, especially from Republican senators, focused on a comment Sotomayor, who is Latina, made about the perspective of a “wise Latina woman” and the roles that a judge’s experience and heritage play in the courtroom, Boyd added.

Both Campbell and Brown, of Black Voters Matter, offered a more recent example of the extra hurdles women of color face when nominated to top federal jobs: They pointed to last year’s nomination hearings for Kristen Clarke, the justice department’s assistant attorney general for civil rights, who Republican senators criticized for an editorial she wrote as a Harvard student rebutting the claims of “The Bell Curve,” a book that tied intelligence to race and has since been broadly characterized as racist.

To Brown of Black Voters Matter, these attacks show how “even in us showing up [as] our exceptional selves, our qualifications are called into question,” she said.

Eyes on Democrats: ‘Will they come to her defense?’

To Black women leaders, the higher bar women nominees have historically faced in Senate confirmation hearings reflect the broader — and ongoing — barriers that women of color face across careers.

“I think that many Black women share in that too often we are called to be overqualified and overprepared for any moment that we step into, and [Jackson] embodies that,” said She Will Rise’s Tignor.

Considering Jackson’s qualifications, Aimee Allison, founder and president of She the People, an organization supporting liberal women of color in politics, sees the hearings “as being sort of a window of what happens everyday for Black women,” she said. “Black women understand that this is Judge Jackson and her nomination hearings, but this is also every Black woman.”

And given the role that Black voters, and Black women in particular, play in the Democratic Party, Allison and her team at She the People are focused on how Democratic senators will respond should Republicans launch unfair questions or attacks.

“Will they come to her defense? Will they ensure that Judge Jackson’s personhood is protected?” Allison asked. “What I hope to be confident in, but want to see, is that the Democrats who should be there to protect her in this process do what they are supposed to do.”

Allison and the other Black women leaders said they’re standing ready to call out racist and sexist attacks or unfair lines of questioning this week if need be.

Black Women’s Roundtable, Higher Heights, Black Voters Matter and She Will Rise will be hosting virtual watch parties and discussions during the hearings. On Wednesday, Black Women’s Roundtable will host a call-in demanding senators confirm Jackson’s nomination, an opportunity Campbell said they’ll also use to address attacks or unfair questions if necessary.

In the meantime, Brown, of Black Voters Matter, hopes people don’t lose sight of the history Jackson will make when she enters the first hearing on Monday.

“Anytime you make a crack in the glass, more light comes in the room,” she said. “I’m hoping that we don’t get distracted by those who seek to only distract and divide, but that we truly recognize how historic this moment is.”