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Ketanji Brown Jackson shatters stereotypes while making history

As the first Black woman nominated to the Supreme Court, Jackson is an archetype — one who defies all the stereotypes

With Vice President Harris looking on, President Biden talks about his nomination of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to the Supreme Court. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

President Biden presented his nominee to the Supreme Court on Friday, and as he’d promised during his campaign — and again after Justice Stephen G. Breyer announced his retirement — he selected a Black woman. Ketanji Brown Jackson, 51, who currently sits on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, is an accomplished jurist, a graduate of Harvard Law School and a believer in American exceptionalism. Her nomination is historic, but many of the bullet points of her personal story are familiar, perhaps even reassuring. Biden’s choice is glass-shattering, but Jackson has given every indication that she is not the sort who will make the ground shift beneath our feet. She is an archetype, one who defies all the stereotypes.

Biden nominates Ketanji Brown Jackson to the Supreme Court

History will not forget the tableau at the White House as Biden walked to the lectern flanked by two Black women. Vice President Harris stood to his left. Jackson was on his right. It was a scene of flourishes and grace notes, subtle shifts in the visual definition of power and competence, a reminder that an older generation can lean toward the future with as much hopefulness as the young. Biden stepped to the microphone with a smile. Pearls and pocket squares were the stylistic nods to the occasion. Dark suits. Glen plaid. Clipped white hair. Flowing long hair. Shoulder-length locks. Biden’s trifold handkerchief gave his navy suit a bit of extra polish. The classic necklaces spoke of propriety and restraint. Supportive spouses sat tall in the audience: the first lady, the second gentleman and Jackson’s husband, Patrick — a surgeon and White Harvard classmate who’d been vetted by her protective Black female friend circle. The visual vocabulary of authority and competence continues to expand as traditions are interrupted with intention and care.

“For too long, our government, our courts haven’t looked like America,” Biden said. “I believe it’s time that we have a court that reflects the full talents and greatness of our nation.” With crisp precision, the president summed up what gets lost when the country fails to be inclusive of all its children. The country misses out on the full abundance of its talent.

The president went on to detail all the qualities he admired in Jackson — her wisdom, pragmatism and keen understanding of history — and to offer up an ode to the breadth of her accomplishments stretching from junior high to her nomination to the highest court. He spoke of her personal qualities, boiling them down to a list of character traits that were about his estimation of Jackson’s humanity, not simply her scholarship.

She listens. She looks people in the eye: lawyers, defendants, victims and families. And she strives to ensure that everyone understands why she made a decision, what the law is and what it means to them,” Biden said. “She strives to be fair, to get it right, to do justice.”

How Ketanji Brown Jackson found a path between confrontation and compromise

The nominee stood on a platform. The president tried to maneuver it behind the microphone, which seemed like the gentlemanly and polite thing to do, until an aide rushed in to assist because dragging boxes around is not what the president is supposed to do — at least not in front of TV cameras. Unlike the court’s recent nominees Amy Coney Barrett and Neil M. Gorsuch, Jackson began her acceptance remarks with a moment of religiosity at a time when the question of faith has been politicized and weaponized.

“I must begin these very brief remarks by thanking God for delivering me to this point in my professional journey. My life has been blessed beyond measure, and I do know that one can only come this far by faith,” Jackson said, her words laying a claim to spirituality as a matter of grace rather than dogma.

She mentioned her uncle who had been incarcerated and whose prison sentence was eventually commuted by President Barack Obama. She highlighted her younger brother’s work as a police officer, along with his service in the Army and his deployments to the Middle East. She noted that another uncle was police chief of her hometown of Miami. In a few sentences, she muddled the stereotype that some have been trying to paint of her as a radical, as a soft-on-crime former public defender, as an unpatriotic other. Before she’d even had time to savor this nomination, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) had already described her as the favored choice of “far-left dark-money groups.” Then he added that he would, of course, give her nomination a sincere look-see.

Jackson used her family’s story to make clear that she understood what it means to be Black and embroiled in the criminal justice system. But her family narrative also gives her empathy for folks who risk their lives in service to their community and to this country. She made it plain that Black people are all both flawed and valiant. She knows the ways in which the country falls short of its promise, but she also revels in that promise.

“Among my many blessings, and indeed the very first, is the fact that I was born in this great country,” Jackson said. “The United States of America is the greatest beacon of hope and democracy the world has ever known.”

(Black) lady justice

In political terms, Jackson acknowledged that both liberal and conservative points of view can coexist in the person of a flesh-and-blood Black woman — not a stereotype but a three-dimensional, nuanced woman. For all of the history that was made in announcing Jackson as the next nominee to the Supreme Court, the truth is that the country already knows exactly who she is. Each of us have met her countless times in churches, in veterans halls, in schools, in conference rooms, in our neighborhoods.

“If I am fortunate enough to be confirmed as the next associate justice of the Supreme Court of the United States,” Jackson said, “I can only hope that my life and career, my love of this country and the Constitution, and my commitment to upholding the rule of law and the sacred principles upon which this great nation was founded, will inspire future generations of Americans.”

Jackson’s words highlighted our individual complexity and the need to have a court that can sort through the tangle of millions of needs and expectations: faith and freedom, equality and fairness, the essence of patriotism, the promise of individualism. If Jackson is able to do any of that on the Supreme Court, she won’t simply be an inspiration for young girls, children of color or any one group. She’ll simply be an inspiration.