Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson’s Hearings Reveal Plight of Black Women in the Workforce

Nya Herron, Staff Writer

Ketanji Brown Jackson, President Joe Biden’s pick to replace retiring Supreme Court Justice Stephen G. Breyer, faced hours of questioning last week in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee as part of her confirmation hearings. Jackson is, in many ways, much more qualified for the position than most current Supreme Court members, as she’s well educated and has an excellent record both as an attorney and as a judge. Jackson spent more time on the bench than Justice Amy Coney Barrett had when she was nominated, and unlike Justice Clarence Thomas or Justice Brett Kavanaugh, she has never been accused of sexual harassment or assault. 

Despite her expertise, Jackson faced periods of tense questioning from Republican senators who were unsatisfied with her judicial philosophy. They attempted to tie her to critical race theory and repeated misleading claims about her sentencing record in several child sexual abuse cases, as transcribed by C-SPAN. Much of those questions, focused on crime rates, school curricula and religious liberty, reflect popular GOP talking points for this year’s midterm elections, but the political motivations cannot be untethered from their racial implications.

Notwithstanding Jackson’s impressive credentials, she nonetheless faced an onslaught of microaggressions, outright falsehoods and demands for irrelevant information. From Tucker Carlson’s questioning of her LSAT scores to Senator Ted Cruz’s bizarre contention that she should have to answer for the work of another Black scholar, simply because she serves on the board of trustees of a school where his book is taught, it is clear the attacks have not been the typical partisan fare. What was all the more impressive was Jackson’s ability to conceal her frustrations despite attacks on her qualifications and character. She likely knows, from living as a Black woman in America, that if she gets upset, displays anger or reacts with outrage, she could immediately be placed under the “angry Black woman” stereotype and have all of her credentials and hard work dismissed.

The exchanges have been extraordinary in their circumstances – Jackson is the first Black woman to appear before the Senate Judiciary Committee as a nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court – but to Black women across the country, it’s all too familiar. Her reactions and words on the public stage reflect what Black women live through as they navigate workplaces dominated by white men. Social media quickly reacted to exchanges during the hearings, with many Black women interpreting Jackson’s reaction as a prime example of how they try to maintain composure in the face of aggression and hostility in the workplace.

Black women have to manage their posture, demeanor and tone to mitigate stereotypes that circulate in people’s minds. All of this stems from stereotypes that have subjugated Black women throughout history. This characterization of Black women along the lines of stereotypes such as the “angry Black woman” raises concerns for potential consequences in the workplace, and these worries are very real, as revealed in a study by the American Psychological Association. The research found that expressions of anger from Black women can lead to worse performance evaluations and lower assessments of leadership capability. 

For prominent positions like Jackson’s, the scrutiny can be far more intense, especially amid the gaze of social media. In 2019, CBS News reported that former first lady Michelle Obama told journalist Gayle King that she was stereotyped as an “angry Black woman who was emasculating her husband. … As I got more popular, that’s when people of all sides — Democrats and Republicans — tried to take me out by the knees,” Obama said. “And the best way to do it was to focus on the one thing people were afraid of: the strength of a Black woman.”

Black women in America are expected to fill two roles at work: One they were hired to do and another role of making coworkers comfortable at their own expense. This mirrors W.E.B Du Bois’ concept of the double consciousness of Black people, which shines light on the struggle people of color (POC) face of having to maintain two identities in America. It’s not enough to be educated, accomplished and professional; to navigate the obstacles created by racist stereotypes, POC must also hide their emotions, and this comes with great psychological costs. Jackson’s hearings help shine light on this difficult mental balance of maintaining the dual identity of one’s true self and the self POC have to display for the comfort and acceptance of white society.

This experience emphasizes that even politicians, who are supposed to represent everyone, are conditioned to expect Black women to be less than, an idea that’s ingrained in the minds of many Americans. American society expects Black women to work hard, but not be too successful or acknowledge the obstacles they’ve overcome in their pursuit of success. It’s an expectation that echoes the stereotype of the Mammy, characterized by a happily disenfranchised Black woman devoted to caring for the family that enslaved her no matter the personal cost and Jim Crow era etiquette, which prescribed that Black people refrain from showing too much emotion in public as it might make white people uncomfortable is an expectation that is still present today.

Politics will be held up as an excuse for the atrocious behaviors on display in these hearings, but one of the reasons so many Republican senators have turned to this toolbox of bigotry is that they know there will be no consequences. Partisan pundits will continue to try to dehumanize her, scrutinizing her every decision despite having absolutely no idea of what it feels like to walk this singular path to the highest court in the land as a Black woman. Many of their constituents will praise this behavior. Those who don’t attack her are likely to celebrate Jackson’s strength and never consider what these hearings have cost her emotionally. 

According to The Washington Post, Jackson was able to receive well-deserved praise from Democratic Senators Cory Booker of New Jersey and Alex Padilla of California, both men of color. Jackson began to cry when Booker praised her accomplishment and noted the obstacles she’s had to overcome. In a way, it was a safe space where Jackson could be emotional with people who could understand her, particularly given that there are no Black women in the Senate. Tears came again when Padilla asked Jackson what she would say to young people who may doubt what they can achieve. Jackson recounted a story of first arriving at Harvard University as a freshman and feeling out of place. She explained that she passed by another Black woman on campus that she didn’t know who suddenly leaned over and told her to “persevere.” That, too, is her advice to young people, a powerful message that gave Jackson the strength we witnessed in these hearings.