Erika D. Smith: On the Supreme Court, Ketanji Brown Jackson will be a symbol. But she’s also human
Tue., April 12, 2022
Vice President Kamala Harris didn’t need to show up at the Capitol on Thursday to preside over the final vote confirming Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to the Supreme Court.
There were no ties to be broken. Not after three Republican senators – Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski and Mitt Romney – had promised they would join all 50 members of the Senate Democratic Caucus in backing the eminently qualified sister with sisterlocks.
But Harris showed up anyway, calling it “a point of personal privilege.”
As she told guests seated on the South Lawn of the White House on Friday, she wanted to bask in the historic symbolism of it all. The first Black woman to serve as vice president of the United States announcing the confirmation of Jackson, the first Black woman to serve on the Supreme Court of the United States.
“While I was sitting there, I drafted a note to my goddaughter,” Harris said. “And I told her that I felt such a deep sense of pride and joy about what this moment means for our nation and for her future.”
Flanked by Jackson and a smiling President Joe Biden, she added: “The road toward our more perfect union is not always straight and it is not always smooth. But sometimes it leads to a day like today.”
And, indeed, what a day!
But what of tomorrow? And the day after that? And after that? Because the unfortunate truth about symbolism is that, even when it comes to public opinion, it can be a fickle, fleeting thing. Even when it’s historic.
Few understand this more than Harris.
It was only a couple of years ago that Americans were rejoicing over her historic rise to the vice presidency, as the first woman of Black and South Asian descent to do so.
Harris was proof “the future is female.” She was “our ancestors’ wildest dreams.” A photo illustration of Harris walking alongside a shadow of civil rights trailblazer Ruby Bridges went viral and became iconic.
Suddenly forgotten were the reasons why many Americans disliked Harris when she was running for president and why many Black Americans questioned her political views, some of which dated back to her years as California’s attorney general.
These days, Americans have remembered. That is, if polling is any indication.
Although Harris’ approval rating among left-leaning Black Americans continues to track higher than among other racial groups, those who are younger and identify as progressive tend to complain about being let down.
That’s because the other unfortunate truth about symbolism is it makes it harder to be a first.
For Black women, this means having the fearful hopes, delayed dreams and unmeetable expectations of millions of Black Americans heaped upon you – even by Black vice presidents.
“You will inspire generations of leaders,” Harris told Jackson on Friday. “They will watch your confirmation hearings and read your decisions in the years to come. The court will answer fundamental questions about who we are and what kind of country we live in.
“Will we expand opportunity or restrict it? Will we strengthen the foundations of our great democracy? Or let them crumble? Will we move forward or backward? The young leaders of our nation will learn from the experience, the judgment, the wisdom that you, Judge Jackson, will apply in every case that comes before you.”
I’m sure all of this will happen. But it probably won’t happen exactly the way many of us rooting for Jackson and cheering her historic confirmation imagine it will.
There will inevitably come a time, when she will make a decision on a case that runs counter to the politics of left-leaning Americans and disappoint some Black Americans.
Sure, Jackson was a public defender. Her views are decidedly liberal. But she also was endorsed by the Fraternal Order of Police. That happened for a reason, and not just because her family is full of police officers.
And that’s OK.
California’s junior senator, Alex Padilla, made this point quite eloquently during his opening remarks at Jackson’s confirmation hearings last month.
“The choices of the Supreme Court will certainly shape the future of labor rights, voting rights, women’s rights; criminal justice, immigration, technology, environmental protection and so much more,” he said. “And let me be clear about something very important, if you’re confirmed, I don’t expect to agree with every detail of every decision you reach. That is not my test.”
In the decades ahead, it’s important to remember that this shouldn’t be our test for Jackson either. Let’s give her the space to be the kind of justice that she wants to be – not that we want her to be.
Jackson, for her part, seems confident and clear-eyed about it all.
“(They) tell me that I’m a role model, which I take both as an opportunity and as a huge responsibility,” she said Friday, as Harris, Biden, her parents, husband and daughters looked on. “I am feeling up to the task primarily because I know that I am not alone. I am standing on the shoulders of my own role models – generations of Americans who never had anything close to this kind of opportunity.”
“For all of the talk of this historic nomination and now confirmation, I think of them as the true path breakers,” Jackson added. “I am just the very lucky, first inheritor of the dream of liberty and justice for all.”
Still, in just a few short weeks, Jackson has gone from being seen as a woman, highly accomplished, but fallible like the rest of us, to a symbol, put on a pedestal to be praised and attacked.
On Thursday at the U.S. Capitol and on Friday on the South Lawn of the White House, she embodied both. Harris did, too.
That’s what so many Black women saw. And, yes, it brought tears to my eyes.
“It has taken 232 years and 115 prior appointments for a Black woman to be selected to serve on the Supreme Court of the United States,” Jackson said. “But we’ve made it. We’ve made it, all of us. All of us. And our children are telling me that they see now more than ever that here in America, anything is possible.”
Erika D. Smith is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times.
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