Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson is poised 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 to Black women at her alma mater.
CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — To many of the women who belong to the Harvard Black Law Students Association, the nomination of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to the Supreme Court has felt deeply personal.
Judge Jackson, an alumna of both Harvard Law School and the association, is poised to become the first Black female justice in the court’s 233-year history when the Senate votes on her confirmation as soon as Thursday.
Many of the women in the association have followed the nomination process closely, inspired by Judge Jackson’s selection and identifying with the barriers in her way. They spoke of walking through the same halls of power that have traditionally been dominated by white Americans, feeling the same pressures of having to be “near perfect” and wearing the same natural hairstyles that have been discriminated against.
The hostile questioning Judge Jackson faced at her confirmation hearings was all too familiar, some women said, reminiscent of their own experiences in classrooms and workplaces.
Her nomination also highlighted the relative rarity of Black women in the legal profession. Only 4.7 percent of lawyers are Black and just 70 Black women have ever served as a federal judge, representing fewer than 2 percent of all such judges. As of October, about 4.8 percent of those enrolled in the law program at Harvard, or 84 people, identified as Black women, compared with just 33 Black women in 1996, when Judge Jackson graduated.
Those statistics are “isolating,” said Mariah K. Watson, the president of the association. “But there’s a comfort in community. There’s a comfort in shared experience. And now we have a role model who’s 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 being second to K.B.J.”
“She’s had to meet every single mark and she hasn’t been 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 to get to a place like Harvard Law School.”
She likened Judge Jackson’s career path to the Marvel supervillain Thanos collecting Infinity Stones: “It’s inspiring for me because I’m at the beginning of my career. I’ve had to work to get here, but there’s so much work to do and that’s just motivating me to continue to break down those barriers, to meet my marks and get 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,” Catherine Crevecoeur, 25, felt that he had articulated the discomfort she had experienced during the hearings.
“They were trying to plant seeds of distrust,” she said. “It’s not new. It’s very common, I think, to a lot of people of color in these spaces.”
Those doubts, Ms. Crevecoeur said, can manifest in a lot of ways, such as when a new acquaintance expresses surprise that she attends one of the most prestigious schools in the country, or grappling with impostor syndrome in her first year at law school. “That’s why it’s extra imperative for people to be represented and to see ourselves and to know that we belong in these spaces,” she said.
Mariah K. Watson said she was “brought to immediate tears” upon hearing of Judge Jackson’s nomination because “if there is going to be somebody who can test where America truly is and our acceptance in wanting to be reflective of what this nation is and can be in many different ways, breaking the mold, then she is the person to do that.”
Judge Jackson has carved out a path for Black women in law, Ms. Watson said, and for that, “I’m grateful for the hard steps and all of the chipping away that she’s doing right now so that the path is cleared or at least a little clearer for those who seek to come after her.”
For Christina Coleburn, Judge Jackson’s nomination was a moment to consider legacy. As she listened to the judge recount her family history — of her grandmother’s dinners and her mother’s career in education — Ms. Coleburn, 27, thought of her own grandmother and mother.
“We’re our ancestors’ wildest dreams, some you’ve never gotten to meet,” she said. “I’m so lucky to still know mine, but to consider how their work made our lives possible, the things sometimes that people take for granted.”
“I’m glad that Judge Jackson brought all those things up,” she said, “because I think those are concepts on everyone’s at least in our community’s minds or almost everyone’s minds.”
Regina Fairfax watched the confirmation hearings with an eye 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 earlier and introduced her on the second day of the proceedings.
“It was amazing just to see their love for each other and their friendship and their sisterhood,” Ms. Fairfax, 24, said. “I think that’s inspiring to everyone just listening to see a Black female relationship, but to me personally, just seeing how far they’ve come together and also that they really relied on each other, leaned on each other throughout the entire experience.”
Virginia Thomas helped pass guidelines in New York banning hair discrimination three years earlier, so seeing Judge Jackson “with sisterlocks, standing up 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 being unapologetically successful, unapologetically confident in who they are,” Ms. Thomas, 31, said.
As a vice president for the Black Law Students 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 custodians who work at the law school.
“Watching with the staff in the morning before students started trickling in after classes and realizing that this moment is bigger than just for law school nerds who love the Supreme Court,” she said. “It also matters for everyday people.”
She added, “Everyday people who look at this woman and think to themselves, ‘Wow, she did it.’”
Aiyanna Sanders, 24, described her mixed emotions upon hearing of Judge Jackson’s nomination, celebrating the historic moment but lamenting how long it took to reach.
“This is a Black woman who went to Harvard undergrad, who went to Harvard Law School,” she said. “We are literally walking in her shoes as we walk through this hallway. And so it’s so close to home. Wow, these things are attainable. But also dang, why hasn’t it happened yet? Or why is it that in 2022 is the first time this has occurred?”
She added, “I think a nomination of a Supreme Court justice — a Black woman, an excellent Black woman who has surpassed all expectations — I think it just shows that you still have to fight hard, but you can get these things, you can obtain them.”
From her time growing up in a working-class community outside Detroit and working for Harvard’s student-run Legal Aid Bureau, Gwendolyn Gissendanner, 25, is acutely aware of how race and identity can affect a courtroom’s proceedings.
“We always have to think about what we need to do to make my often Black low-income clients appeal to a white judge who doesn’t understand their experience,” she said. “But someone who you don’t have to take the extra leap to prove to them that race interacts with every aspect of your life makes a giant difference in what types of decisions can be made.”
She added, “I think of the Supreme Court as such an inaccessible 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 processed that yet.”
While watching President Biden announce Judge Jackson as his nominee to the Supreme Court, Brianna Banks, 26, started to cry “in what I thought at first was a cheesy way — this is such a cliché,” she recalled. But upon reflection, she realized the moment illuminated why she had never considered a career as judge or imagined herself as a justice.
“By the numbers, we have a lot of Supreme Court justices from Harvard Law School,” she said. “And I am one of the few students that I knew that could never be me, no matter what, because there had never been one that looked like me before. So it brought up this emotion because people tell you, you come from Harvard Law School, you can do whatever you want, there’s no job that isn’t open to you. But for Black women, that’s not always true, because there are a lot of spaces or jobs that we still have not occupied.”
“Now,” she added, “the sky is the limit.”
As a first-generation college student and the first person in her family never to have spent a day behind bars, Zarinah Mustafa, 27, said she was particularly excited about Judge Jackson’s background 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 that everyone deserves a vigorous defense,” she said.
“I care about defending the little folk, little people and I definitely see myself in her,” Ms. Mustafa added. “Maybe I’ll wear my Harvard sweatshirt to the airport now — I normally don’t — because she went here and she was part of the Harvard Black Law Students Association.”
Above all, Ms. Mustafa said, she was proud of and excited by Judge Jackson’s record: “This Black woman is just killing it.”