When Ketanji Brown Jackson was a student at Harvard, one of her classmates draped a Confederate battle flag outside his dorm window in the middle of Harvard Yard, the center of the university’s campus.
Three decades later, Jackson, who is President Biden’s pick to replace Merrick Garland on the influential federal appeals court in Washington, recalled thinking it was unfair that in addition to being victimized and getting little support from the university, Black students missed classes and “could not just be regular students” while protesting the flag display.
It was, she told aspiring Black lawyers at a dinner in her honor at the University of Chicago last year, what the student who unfurled the Confederate flag had wanted: “For us to be so distracted that we failed our classes and thereby reinforced the stereotype that we couldn’t cut it at a place like Harvard.”
Jackson recounted the story in one of many speeches she has given in recent years to law students and young professionals of color to illuminate how she has quickly negotiated a path that very few Black women in America have.
If Jackson is confirmed by the Senate to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, she would join just five other Black women out of 286 judges currently sitting on a federal appeals court bench — often a proving ground for the Supreme Court. Biden’s nominee for the Chicago-based appeals court, Candace Jackson-Akiwumi, would bring the total number to seven if both women are confirmed.
At 50, Jackson is also on a shortlist of contenders who could fulfill Biden’s promise to name the first Black woman to the high court. After graduating from Harvard University and Harvard Law School, Jackson was a law clerk to three judges, including Justice Stephen G. Breyer, who is under pressure from Democrats to retire.
Jackson is frequently asked for career advice and has shared with hundreds of Black law students in personal, self-deprecating terms how she rose through the ranks. Her journey has included stops at law firms in Boston and Washington, the federal public defender’s office, a seat on the U.S. Sentencing Commission and now at the U.S. District Court in Washington since 2013.
She points to her work ethic and late-night study sessions honed as a high school debate champion that “made me somewhat boring,” her “funny name” that made her stand out, and the thick skin she had to develop early as a dark-skinned Black girl who was often the only person of color in her class or social circle.
Jackson has urged the next generation of lawyers of color to stay focused on “the climb” to better professional opportunities and not get distracted by inequities and social injustices, advice she acknowledged that may be hard for some to follow.
“I absolutely know and understand that you will face prejudice and other obstacles that other people in your environment do not have to endure,” she said in the February 2020 speech that quotes poets Maya Angelou and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
“The question I am encouraging you to think about is whether being confrontational will actually solve the problem, and even more important, whether it is worth your time.
“Having a thick skin means recognizing when you’re being disrespected but also understanding that marshaling a response each time something happens is a big distraction that takes your mind and attention away from what really matters, which is doing the best job that you can possibly do so that you can rise to a level in which you will actually be able to address the kinds of issues that you’ve witnessed.”
Jackson was born in 1970 in Washington, the daughter of two graduates of historically Black colleges and universities who began their careers as teachers. Her parents moved to D.C. from South Florida in the post-civil rights era and instilled in Jackson a sense of invincibility. They gave her an African name, Ketanji Onyika, dressed her in a mini-daishiki and styled her hair in Afro puffs.
“My parents set out to teach me that, unlike the many impenetrable barriers that they had had to face, my path was clear, such that if I worked hard and believed in myself, I could do anything or be anything I wanted to be,” she said in a March speech delivered online for Columbia Law School’s Empowering Women of Color gala in which she was honored.
That meant when other kids were going to late-night parties, Jackson was writing or rehearsing speeches for the debate team. When her high school guidance counselor recommended against setting her sights “so high” and applying to Harvard, she ignored the advice.
“I recall distinctly not being fazed by the slings and arrows of implicit, or even explicit, bias, and making the conscious decision to push forward nonetheless,” she said.
On the federal commission that shapes sentencing policies starting in 2010, Jackson helped ensure that a reduction in penalties for drug-related offenses applied retroactively. In the eight years since President Barack Obama nominated Jackson to serve on the trial court bench, she has imposed prison sentences on more than 100 defendants, prompting her to reflect on the people standing before her who lacked similar opportunities.
“In my current job, I often deal with people who actually had very little shot at doing anything other than making terrible decisions like getting involved with gangs, and drugs, and other criminal behavior,” she said in the February speech. “I have to sentence them — and I sometimes think: wow, that could so easily have been me.”
At her mostly uncontentious Senate confirmation hearing last week, Jackson defended her independence in response to questions from Republicans about her rulings against the Trump administration. She described her decision-making method: sticking to the arguments, the facts and the law.
“It doesn’t make a difference whether or not the argument is coming from a death row inmate or the president of the United States,” she said. “I’m not injecting my personal views.”
She also took a moment to consider her professional journey in response to a question from Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Calif.). From her courthouse office on Constitution Avenue, Jackson sometimes visits the nearby National Archives, where the Constitution and Bill of Rights are displayed.
“Sometimes I go there and I reflect on the momentousness of my duties and the fact that I’ve had an opportunity that my grandparents would not have been able to even fathom,” she said, adding that it is the “beauty and the majesty of this country that someone who comes from a background like mine could find herself in this position.”
Jackson’s Harvard roommate Lisa Fairfax, however, said it is no surprise that her friend is now the president’s pick for a spot on the appeals court and being mentioned for the Supreme Court.
The flag incident, she said, underscores Jackson’s persona and values.
“Ketanji, like all of us, was deeply troubled by what happened,” said Fairfax, who like Jackson went on to Harvard Law School. “She very much believes in justice and equity, and in using her voice.”
But Fairfax said Jackson also has the intellectual stamina to work hard under difficult circumstances and to persevere in the midst of challenges she’s faced as a Black woman.
“She was both a strong, vital and supportive member of the Black community and a strong, vital student who was able to achieve excellence.
“It surprises no one that she is where she is.”
Magda Jean-Louis contributed to this report.