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

Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, who was confirmed to the Supreme Court on Thursday, will be the first black woman to serve as a judge. Here’s what that means for black women at her alma mater.

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

Judge Jackson, an alumnus of Harvard Law School and the association, was confirmed by the Senate on Thursday and will become the first black female judge in the court’s 233-year history.

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

The hostile questioning Judge Jackson faced during her confirmation hearings was all too familiar, some women said, recalling their own experiences in classrooms and workplaces.

Her appointment also underscored the relative scarcity of black women in the legal profession. Only 4.7% of lawyers are black and only 70 black women have ever been a federal judge, which represents less than 2% of all these judges. As of October, about 4.8% of those enrolled in Harvard’s law program, or 84 people, identified as black women, compared to just 33 black women in 1996, when Judge Jackson graduated.

These statistics are “isolating”, said Mariah K. Watson, president of the association. “But there is a comfort in the community. There is a comfort in the shared experience. And now we have a model that has shown us what it’s going to take. »

We spoke to some of the women in the association. Here’s what they had to say about Judge Jackson’s nomination.

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

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

She compared Judge Jackson’s career path to Marvel supervillain Thanos who collects Infinity Stones: “It’s inspiring to me because I’m at the start of my career. I had to work hard to get here, but there is so much work to do and it motivates me to keep breaking down these barriers, achieving my goals and earning my Infinity Stones.

When Senator Cory Booker, Democrat of New Jersey, praised Judge Jackson after hours of intense questioning and told her “you are worthy”, 25-year-old Catherine Crevecoeur felt he expressed the discomfort she had felt during the hearings.

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

These doubts, Ms. Crevecoeur said, can manifest in many ways, such as when a new acquaintance expresses surprise that she is attending one of the most prestigious schools in the country, or struggling with impostor syndrome. in his first year of law school. “That’s why it’s even more imperative for people to be represented, to see each other, and to know that we belong in these spaces,” she said.

Mariah K. Watson said she was “immediately brought to tears” upon learning of Judge Jackson’s nomination because “if there is anyone who can test where America really is and our acceptance of wanting to reflect what this nation is and can be in different ways, breaking the mold, so she’s the person to do it.

Justice Jackson has paved a path for black women in law, Ms. Watson said, and for that, “I am grateful for the difficult steps and all the work she is doing right now to get the path cleared or cleared.” less a little clearer for those looking to come after her.

For Christina Coleburn, Judge Jackson’s appointment was a time to consider legacy. As she listened to the judge recount her family history – from her grandmother’s dinner parties and her mother’s career in education – Ms Coleburn, 27, thought of her own grandmother and mother.

“We are the wildest dreams of our ancestors, some you’ve never met,” she said. “I’m so lucky to still know mine, but to consider how their work has made our lives possible, the things that people sometimes take for granted.”

“I’m glad Judge Jackson brought up all of these things,” she said, “because I think these are concepts about everyone at least in the minds of our community or almost in the everyone’s mind.”

Regina Fairfax watched the confirmation hearings with an eye on not one, but two black women she sees as role models: her “Aunt Ketanji” and her mother, Lisa Fairfax, who lodged with Judge Jackson at Harvard. decades earlier and presented her on the second day of proceedings.

“It was amazing to see their love for each other, their friendship and their brotherhood,” Ms Fairfax, 24, said. “I think it’s inspiring for everyone just listening to see a relationship between black women, but for me personally, just seeing how close they’ve come together and also that they’ve really supported each other. on others, relied on each other throughout the experience.”

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

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

As vice president of the Black Law Students Association, Ms. Thomas hosted screenings of Judge Jackson’s confirmation hearings. The highlight, she said, was getting the attention of security guards, cafeteria workers and guards who work at the law school.

“Watching with the staff in the morning before the students start arriving after class and realizing that this moment is more important than for law school nerds who love the Supreme Court,” she said. . “It matters to ordinary people too.”

She added: “Ordinary people looking at this woman and saying, ‘Wow, she did it. “”

Aiyanna Sanders, 24, described her mixed emotions upon learning of Justice Jackson’s appointment, celebrating the historic moment but lamenting the time it took to reach it.

“She’s a black woman who went to Harvard undergrad, who went to Harvard Law School,” she said. “We are literally walking in his place going through this hallway. And so it’s so close to home. Wow, these things are doable. But also dang, why hasn’t this happened yet? Or why is 2022 the first time this has happened? »

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

Since growing up in a working-class community outside of Detroit and working for Harvard’s legal aid office, 25-year-old Gwendolyn Gissendanner has been acutely aware of how race and identity can affect court proceedings.

“We always have to think about what we need to do to get my often black low-income clients to appeal to a white judge who doesn’t understand their experience,” she said. “But someone you don’t have to take the extra leap to prove to them that race interacts with all aspects of your life makes a huge difference in the kinds of decisions that can be made.”

She added, “I view the Supreme Court as an unreachable beacon, and the idea that someone who reflects my own identity is going to be in that space is kind of – I don’t even know if I’ve fully dealt with that. Again.”

As she watched President Biden announce Justice Jackson as his Supreme Court nominee, 26-year-old Brianna Banks began to cry “in a way that I at first thought was cheesy – it’s so cliche,” she recalls. But upon reflection, she realized the moment lit up why she had never considered a career as a judge or imagined herself as a judge.

“In numbers, we have a lot of Supreme Court justices from Harvard Law School,” she said. “And I’m one of the few students I knew who could never be me, no matter what, because there’s never been one like me before. So it sparked that emotion because the people tell you, you’re from harvard law school, you can do whatever you want, there’s no job that’s not open 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,” she added, “the sky’s the limit.”

As a first-generation student who has seen family members behind bars, 27-year-old Zarinah Mustafa said she was particularly excited about Judge Jackson’s track record as a public defender.

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

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

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

Nancy I. Romero