Life lessons for younger Black women in the wake of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson’s ugly confirmation hearing

OPINION: A note to all the young Black women and girls who watched the hearings: You do not have to sit and smile while someone less qualified than you sits in judgment of you.

Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson speaks during the Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing on her nomination to become an Associate Justice of the US Supreme Court, on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, on March 23, 2022. (Photo by Jim WATSON / AFP) (Photo by JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images)

Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.

Let me start by saying this: It is not OK to beat up on an accomplished Black woman during an important, historic and very public job interview. Period. 

The awful display of disrespect and dishonor that Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson received at the hands of Senators Ted Cruz (R-Texas), Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) was beneath the dignity of the august body of the U.S. Senate. 

It was the worst display I had ever seen, and I remember the Clarence Thomas confirmation process vividly when Anita Hill testified when I was a first-year law student back in the fall of 1991. I did not like seeing two smart, accomplished Black people used as pawns in a white man’s ugly political chess game one against another. It was damaging to my young soul to watch. And this past week, my soul hurt again. I felt anger, frustration, rage even. And when I saw Judge Brown Jackson finally break and wipe away tears on Wednesday in the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing room, I too found myself wiping away tears.

I want all the young Black women and girls who watched the hearings this week to know this does not have to be your reality. You do not have to sit and smile while someone less qualified than you sits in judgment of you. You do not have to take it anymore. We are going to build a better future for you. And that “we” are the first Black female vice president of the United States of America and the next associate justice of the Supreme Court, Ketanji Brown Jackson, and all of us who do not want you to endure what we have endured since slavery. 

Candidly, I have never seen a woman at a job interview have to wipe away tears as she came to the end of an interview. That she was the first Black woman being interviewed for a place on the nation’s highest court made it all the more disturbing. Watching it all play out was, in a word: surreal. It was exciting and joyous on the one hand, and it was angering and upsetting on the other. Social media was in an uproar as we all stood in disbelief that this was happening in 2022.

Be clear that Judge Brown Jackson was not well treated this week. You didn’t imagine it. It wasn’t “just politics.” There was no “sparing.” There were no “heated exchanges,” as many media outlets tried to suggest. There were only a handful of angry, aggrieved white senators who wanted revenge for how they felt Brett Kavanaugh was treated during his confirmation hearings in 2018. The problem is they took out their anger on a sitting federal appeals court judge who was not a part of those hearings. Nor did she make any allegations about the judge who was under fire at that time. The senators took out their vitriol and anger on her. It was insane and unhinged all at once.

Senator Lindsey Graham ranted at Judge Brown Jackson for another sin that she did not commit: the non-elevation of a Black female jurist, Judge Janice Rogers Brown, to the Supreme Court. She was never nominated to the Supreme Court by either Republican Presidents George W. Bush or Donald Trump. She served on the D.C. Circuit Court for a decade and was a Republican appointee, but she retired in 2017. She was not tapped by Trump, who had three Supreme Court picks in four years. He could have easily nominated her; he did not.   

As a professional Black woman, a former attorney and now in my 50s like the judge, I felt physically unwell at how the Republican senators spoke to her—yelling at her and demeaning her—because I have been there too many times. Not in public at a job interview. But definitely in the boardroom or conference room or on the college campus. I simply spoke my mind like all the men in the room. Or like the white women in the room. It was not always well received. I was labeled angry, hostile, not easy to work with. These are the words people use to mar your soul and clip your wings.

While listening to U.S. Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) speak, Supreme Court nominee Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson wipes away tears during her confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee in the Hart Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill March 23, 2022 in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

Twitter and social media were ablaze with the righteous outrage of Black women, who know all too well what we saw playing out. The crass societal demand of us to smile when we are being verbally lynched. The pressure to not break, not strike back or even ask to be treated with the dignity and respect that every human being deserves. I want young Black women to know that you are worthy. That you matter. That you are human. That shedding tears is OK. That protecting yourself and speaking up for yourself is allowed. And that we do not want this for you. We want you to be treated fairly, equally and respectfully in the public square and the private sector. We want you to be treated in ways that honor your self-care, mental health and wellness, and most of all,  your joy, as Senator Cory Booker (D-N.J.) said. 

Let me end by saying that these hearings were a missed opportunity for Republicans to simply support a well-qualified historic nominee. She is overqualified. She has been on the bench for almost 10 years. She has been married to one man faithfully for over 25 years. She is a working mother of two amazing daughters. She is a woman of deep faith. Her parents are still married. Her brother and uncles have served in the military and law enforcement. Yet, with all of this, Republicans attacked her as being soft on crime and child pornographers. That’s what they chose to do with such an outstanding nominee. 

I must tell you, as someone who was a Republican for over 20 years, these hearings broke me down. This is not the same party I joined in 1988. This is some kind of dark cult or club for the angry and those who continually engage in recriminations and vengeance. I interned in the U.S. Senate in the summer of 1988. It was all white men with only two white female senators at that time. Today’s Senate may be slightly more diverse, but not for women who look like me. There are no Black women in the Senate. That must change so that the tone in the Senate changes from what we all saw on display this week to one of true inclusion, respect and dignity for all who come before Senate committees and engage in Senate business. 

Memo to young sisters: What we saw was not OK. We must work to make sure that your generation never has to endure such a disgraceful process again.

Sophia A. Nelson is a contributing editor for theGrio. Nelson is a TV commentator and is the author of “The Woman Code: Powerful Keys to Unlock,” “Black Women Redefined.” 

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