Early this year, an unprecedented announcement issued from the White House: a Black woman may become the next appointee to the U.S. Supreme Court. What’s more, attorney and jurist Ketanji Brown Jackson was named in February as the front runner for this role. This potential appointment of the first Black woman Supreme Court Justice would be historic not just because she is the first but also because this event has emerged from a historical and contemporary context in which Black people, women of all races, and Black women in particular remain marginalized under the law. To watch a Black woman potentially enter a role in which she will have such a considerable impact on American law for many generations to come is immensely powerful when viewed in the context of this history. Further, the confirmation process surrounding another recent Supreme Court appointment brought issues of sexism and gendered violence to the fore, revealing—in the minds of some—the urgency of ensuring that the U.S. Supreme Court welcomes justices who have exhibited a commitment to challenging various manifestations of sexism and injustice. Whether we regard it as a symbolic marker of social progress or an opportunity for tangible policy change, Jackson’s nomination is a historic event that is poised to permanently alter the face of the Supreme Court.
Jackson earned her bachelor’s and law degrees from Harvard University where she served as the supervising editor of the Harvard Law Review. After graduating cum laude, she proceeded to work for private law firms followed by the U.S. Sentencing Commission and in a new capacity as a federal public defender. Should Jackson join the Supreme Court, she will become the first justice to have served as a federal public defender as well as the first and only justice since Thurgood Marshall to have represented criminal defendants. Jackson’s career also encompassed work in private practice before she was selected to serve as vice-chair of the U.S. Sentencing Commission where she was instrumental in lowering federal drug sentences. President Barack Obama later nominated her to the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C. followed by President Joe Biden nominating her to join the U.S. Court of Appeals.
As the media anticipates Jackson’s confirmation process, we have seen a combination of impassioned support and virulent criticism. Among her detractors is a conservative pundit who has questioned Jackson’s academic credentials, demanding that she “show her papers”—that is, show her score on the LSAT, the standardized test used in law school admissions. Though Brown attended Harvard Law School, the presumption that she must be incompetent reflects a broader trend in which women of color’s knowledge and authority, even for those operating within elite spaces of higher education and politics, is presumed to be fraudulent, superficial, or otherwise illegitimate by default.
Though these unsubstantiated challenges to Jackson’s educational credentials and authority reflect clear vestiges of racism and sexism, Jackson is not alone in having her authority challenged even as she rises above the noise. From the groundbreaking careers of Shirley Chisholm and Vice President Kamala Harris to Patsy Takemoto Mink, women of color in public life have been rising above criticism that seeks to delegitimize them and continuing to press forward.
Facing History invites educators to learn more about various women of color in politics who have paved the way for Jackson’s historic nomination through our Teaching Idea, The Power of Representation: Patsy Takemoto Mink, Shirley Chisholm, and Kamala Harris.