The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The maddeningly limited vision of Ketanji Brown Jackson’s guidance counselor

WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 25: Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, BidenÕs nominee to serve as Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, makes remarks to reporters at the White House in Washington, DC. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)
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When I learned that President Biden had asked Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to serve on the Supreme Court, my first instinct was to cheer this historic appointment. But what soon followed was an instinct to dream of the moment when the elevation of such a supremely talented person would be more routine than remarkable.

I hope to see a world where we can stop tossing confetti when 232-year-old institutions include women, people with brown skin, those who are differently abled, those who are LGBTQ or those who have been locked out for centuries.

I hope to see a world where braids and passion twists or kinky, curly, fuzzy, nappy, “grow as God gave me” hairstyles are as common as side-part, soft-fade, executive haircuts in CEO suites and anywhere people exert influence over life, learning, longevity and the engines of our economies.

I hope to see a world where names like Ketanji and Kamala and Kizzmekia roll off the tongue as easily as Ashok, Xiomara or Eun-Woo. A world where more National Football League coaches have names such as Kwame and Francisco. A world where college students do not feel like they must Anglicize their names so their résumés don’t go straight to the piles labeled “not ready” or “not sure” or “not now.”

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Consider this: Researchers at the University of Chicago, Harvard and MIT sent résumés to employers with similar levels of education and experience. The only difference was the name at the top. Candidates with African American or ethnic-sounding names were much less likely to get a call back. Opportunities flow more freely in some directions than in others. I want to see a world where that does not happen.

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Studies have found that the most common names for CEOs in the United States over the past 20 years were Peter, Jack, Bob, Chris, Fred, Bill, Ron, Don, Bruce and Alexander. According to an analysis by LinkedIn, if you are a woman who aspires to become a CEO, your chances are improved if your name is Deborah, Pamela, Cynthia, Cheryl or Sally.

Is that a coincidence? Is it about natural selection or the subtle messages that are passed on over decades about what authority should look and sound like?

I want to live in a world where a Supreme Court nominee, or anyone else making history, will not be able to tell the story, as Jackson did, about the high school guidance counselor who urged her to lower her sights when she aspired to attend Harvard. My Post colleague Jonathan Capehart took to Twitter and asked, “Raise your hand if you had *that* guidance counselor?” The response was revealing and heartbreaking: Dozens upon dozens of lawyers, journalists, professors, CPAs, nurses and a chemical physicist all reported that they had *that* guidance counselor.

Ruth Marcus: I’ve covered the Supreme Court for years. Here’s what to know about Jackson’s nomination.

It reminded me of a book club meeting I attended before Michelle Obama published her memoir, “Becoming,” in which she recalled how her high school guidance counselor suggested that she rethink her plan to follow her older brother to college at Princeton.

This was no ordinary book club. A dozen women had a chance to read and discuss “Becoming” with the former first lady before its publication; they included TV producer Shonda Rhimes, historians Erica Armstrong Dunbar and Martha S. Jones, Andrew W. Mellon Foundation President Elizabeth Alexander, former U.S. poet laureate Natasha Trethewey, civil rights lawyer Sherrilyn Ifill, law school dean Verna Williams, and authors Tayari Jones, Jacqueline Woodson and Farah Jasmine Griffin.

When asked whether anyone in the group had a high school guidance counselor who tried to clip their wings, almost every woman present raised her hand; so did some of the younger women in attendance from Obama’s staff. We all stared at one another. We didn’t know whether to laugh or to cry.

Some of us have been in touch after hearing Jackson share her story last week from the White House lectern. A few of us had parents, including me, who took time off from work to set the counselor straight. One ran into her old guidance counselor at a train station after she had made a name for herself. That day, he told her, “I knew you’d do great things.”

Why couldn’t he have said that to her as a 17-year-old?

Thank goodness all these accomplished people soared beyond their guidance counselors’ limited visions. But I worry about all the kids who sadly succumb to low expectations or who don’t have champions to nurture their ambitions.

So, I have a slight twist on Jonathan’s query. I’d ask: “Are you now *that* guidance counselor, unable to see the potential that resides inside brown skin, or in some kid who doesn’t have the ‘right’ Zip code, name or gender?”

I want to live in a world where young people, regardless of color, or sexual orientation, or station in life, can follow their dreams without running into a counselor who will “guide” them toward a lower altitude based on nothing more than the unfortunate limits of *that* counselor’s imagination.

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