What Ketanji Brown Jackson Means to Black Women at Harvard Law School

Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson is set to be confirmed to the Supreme Court this week, making her the first black woman to serve as a justice. Here’s what that means for black women at her alma mater.

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — For many of the women who belong to the Black Harvard Law Student Association, Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson’s nomination to the Supreme Court has felt deeply personal.

Judge Jackson, a Harvard Law School and association alumna, is poised to become the first black female judge in the court’s 233-year history when the Senate votes on her confirmation on Thursday.

Many of the women in the association have closely followed the nomination process, inspired by Justice Jackson’s selection and identifying with the barriers in her path. They spoke of walking the same corridors of power that have traditionally been dominated by white Americans, feeling the same pressures to be “almost perfect” and wearing the same natural hairstyles that have been discriminated against.

Some women said the hostile questioning Justice Jackson faced at her confirmation hearings was all too familiar, reminiscent of their own experiences in classrooms and workplaces.

Her nomination also highlighted the relative dearth of black women in the legal profession. Only 4.7 percent of attorneys are black and only 70 black women have ever served as federal judges, which is less than 2 percent of all those judges. As of October, about 4.8 percent of those enrolled in Harvard’s law program, or 84 people, identified as black women, compared to just 33 black women in 1996, when Justice Jackson graduated.

Those statistics are “isolating,” said Mariah K. Watson, president of the association. “But there is a comfort in the community. There is a comfort in shared experience. And now we have a role model that has shown us what it takes.”

We talked to some of the women in the association. This is what they had to say about Judge Jackson’s nomination.

Abigail Hall, 23, always wanted to be the first black woman on the Supreme Court, but admitted that “if I have to be second, I’m fine being second to KBJ.”

“She’s had to meet every mark and she hasn’t been able to drop the ball,” Ms. Hall said. “And that is something that is ingrained in us, in terms of checking every box, to be a black woman and to get to a place like Harvard Law School.”

He compared Judge Jackson’s career path to that of Marvel supervillain Thanos, who collects Infinity Stones: “It’s inspiring for me because I’m at the beginning of my career. I have had to work to get here, but there is a lot of work to do and that motivates me to continue breaking those barriers, to achieve my goals and obtain my Infinity Stones.”

When Senator Cory Booker, a Democrat from New Jersey, praised Justice Jackson after hours of intense questioning, telling her “you are worthy,” Catherine Crevecoeur, 25, felt he had expressed the discomfort he had experienced during the hearings. .

“They were trying to plant seeds of mistrust,” he said. “It is not new. I think it’s very common for a lot of people of color in these spaces.”

Those doubts, Crevecoeur said, can manifest in many ways, such as when a new acquaintance expresses surprise that he attends one of the most prestigious schools in the country, or dealing with impostor syndrome in his first year of law school. “That’s why it’s so imperative that people are represented and see ourselves and know that we belong in these spaces,” he said.

Mariah K. Watson said she was “immediately tearful” upon learning of Justice Jackson’s nomination because “if there is going to be someone who can prove where America really is and our acceptance of wanting to be a reflection of what this nation it is and can be in many different ways, breaking the mold, then she is the person to do it.”

Justice Jackson has blazed a trail for African-American women in the law, Ms. Watson said, and for that, “I am grateful for the hard steps and all the undermining that she is doing right now so that the path is clear or at less”. least a little clearer for those looking to come after her.”

For Christina Coleburn, Justice Jackson’s nomination was a moment to consider legacy. As she listened to the judge tell the story of her family, her grandmother’s dinner parties and the educational career of her mother, Mrs. Coleburn, 27, she thought of her own grandmother and mother. her.

“We are the wildest dreams of our ancestors, some that you have never come to know,” he said. “I am so lucky to know mine, but to consider how her work made our lives possible, the things that people sometimes take for granted.”

“I’m glad Justice Jackson brought up all of those things,” he said, “because I think those are concepts in everyone’s mind, at least in our community’s mind or almost everyone’s mind.”

Regina Fairfax watched the confirmation hearings with her eyes on not just one, but two black women she considers role models: her “Aunt Ketanji” and her mother, Lisa Fairfax, who roomed with Judge Jackson at Harvard. decades before and presented it on the second day of the process.

“It was amazing to see their love for each other and their friendship and their sisterhood,” said Ms. Fairfax, 24. “I think that’s inspiring for everyone just to hear of a relationship with a black woman, but for me personally to see how far they’ve come together and also that they really trusted each other, leaned on each other through the whole experience.”

Virginia Thomas helped pass guidelines in New York banning hair discrimination three years earlier, so seeing Justice Jackson “with sister locks, standing there in her glory and her professionalism,” was particularly satisfying.

“It’s an opportunity for people to really visualize and see Black women doing what they do, which is having unapologetic success, unapologetic confidence in who they are,” said Ms. Thomas, 31.

As Vice President of the Black Law Student Association, Ms. Thomas organized screenings of Judge Jackson’s confirmation hearings. The highlight, she said, was attracting the attention of security guards, cafeteria workers and janitors who work at the law school.

“Watching with staff in the morning before students started arriving after school and realizing this moment is bigger than just law school nerds who love the Supreme Court,” he said. “It is also important for ordinary people.”

He added: “Ordinary people looking at this woman and thinking to themselves, ‘Wow, she did it.'”

Aiyanna Sanders, 24, described her mixed emotions upon learning of Justice Jackson’s nomination, celebrating the historic moment but lamenting how long it took to arrive.

“This is a black woman who went to Harvard undergraduate, who went to Harvard Law School,” he said. “We are literally walking in her shoes as we walk down this aisle. And that’s why she’s so close to home. Wow, these things are attainable. But also, why hasn’t it happened yet? Or why is 2022 the first time this has happened?

She added: “I think the nomination of a Supreme Court justice, a black woman, a great black woman who has exceeded all expectations, I think it just shows that you still have to fight hard, but you can get these things, you can get them. ”

Since she grew up in a working-class community outside of Detroit and worked for Harvard’s student-run Legal Aid Office, 25-year-old Gwendolyn Gissendanner is acutely aware of how race and identity can impact legal proceedings. a court.

“We always have to think about what we need to do to get my clients, who are often black and low-income, to appeal to a white judge who doesn’t understand their experience,” he said. “But someone you don’t have to go the extra mile to show that race interacts with every aspect of your life makes a big difference in the kinds of decisions that can be made.”

He added: “I think of the Supreme Court as such an inaccessible beacon, and the idea that someone who reflects my own identity will be in that space is kind of like… I don’t even know if I’ve fully processed it. yet.”

As she watched President Biden announce Justice Jackson as his Supreme Court nominee, 26-year-old Brianna Banks began to cry “at what I thought at first was corny, this is a cliché,” she recalled. But upon reflection, she realized that the moment illuminated why she had never considered a career as a judge or imagined herself as a judge.

“Based on the numbers, we have a lot of Supreme Court justices from Harvard Law School,” he said. “And I’m one of the few students who knew that it could never be me, no matter what, because there’s never been one that looked like me before. So this excitement arose because people tell you, you come from Harvard Law School, you can do whatever you want, there is no job that is not available to you. But for black women, that’s not always true, because there are a lot of spaces or jobs that we haven’t filled yet.”

“Now,” he added, “the sky is the limit.”

As a first-generation college student and the first person in her family to never spend a day behind bars, Zarinah Mustafa, 27, said she was particularly excited about Judge Jackson’s record as a public defender.

“I just feel like that perspective is so underrepresented and it doesn’t make sense why, in a country where we say everyone deserves a vigorous defense,” he said.

“I care about standing up for little people, little people and I definitely see myself reflected in it,” added Ms. Mustafa. “Maybe I’ll wear my Harvard sweatshirt to the airport now, I normally don’t, because she went here and was part of the Harvard Black Law Student Association.”

Above all, Mustafa said, she was proud and excited about Judge Jackson’s record: “This black woman is just killing it.”

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