Racism is not just a way of describing a person’s actions. It is a core part of their behavior, reasoning and values, and how they understand themselves in relationship to other human beings and the world. This is true of both racist individuals and racist societies.
Racists and those others invested in white supremacy and white privilege in its various forms will almost always reveal themselves. This is true regardless of their race or ethnicity.
Last week’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson offered many such moments. Presuming Jackson is confirmed, as appears likely, she will be the first Black woman (and third Black person) to be a Supreme Court justice in American history. There is no doubt Jackson is eminently qualified. She has had to excel, as both a Black person and a woman, in ways more than equal to her white and male colleagues in order to forge a successful legal career.
Racists, white supremacists and other racial authoritarians possess great appreciation for the power of spectacle and timing. Senate Republicans and their supporters in the larger white right would not let Jackson’s historic moment go by without attempting to twist it to their own purposes.
Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee (and their boosters in right-wing media) pounced on Jackson with a series of insidious lies and allegations drawn from the QAnon conspiracy theory. According to this narrative, she is a pedophile-protecting, criminal-coddling “anti-white” Black supremacist who embraces “critical race theory” and seeks to destroy the “traditional family.”
As Abby Zimet wrote for Common Dreams, Jackson’s hearings “turned into a noxious maelstrom of frat boy ‘whiteness at work’ thanks to the relentless, hectoring assaults by a ‘marauding band of racist, sexist visigoths’ of the GOP, who managed to turn a more-than-eminently qualified Black female judge into a child-porn-loving, critical-race-spewing danger to the Republic.” She continues:
Sadly, the most striking feature of almost four days of hearings was not the historical moment — a nation poised to add the first Black woman to its highest court — but the bullying, badgering, appalling histrionics of a motley collection of ignorant old white guys (and one young one) subjecting a Black woman to the kind of contemptuous “jackassery” that no white counterpart, even a sniveling, lying, bellicose, sexual assaulting bro, would ever suffer, like, say, being asked the definition of a woman or if babies are racist — WTF — all while still smiling.
At the Nation, Elie Mystal offered further context:
Toni Morrison says “the very serious function of racism is distraction,” but Jackson knew it wasn’t worth being distracted by [Ted] Cruz, or any of the small-minded and condescending white people arrayed against her on the Senate Judiciary Committee. She’s worked too hard and bested too many of the white man’s little traps to get tripped up near the finish line by senators who debase themselves and their offices for 30 seconds of attention on Tucker Carlson’s show. Jackson passed her test.
But it was hard to watch her be put through the crucible of white approval. The attacks used by Republicans against her weren’t about her qualifications: Everybody knows she’s more than qualified to be on the Supreme Court, and even most of the Republicans said so. The attacks weren’t about her personal behavior or ethics: Again, even Republicans remarked that she had lived a good life and there’s been no whiff of scandal, and no suggestion of sexual assault (which is not something you can say for all Supreme Court nominees).
Instead, Republicans simply pronounced her guilty by association with people and stereotypes of people they don’t think belong in America.
As Joy-Ann Reid of MSNBC shared on Twitter, “Critical Race Theory is the new N-word. Republicans are wielding it like a burning cross in order to persecute Black people.”
At Insider, Marguerite Ward observed that Jackson “was constantly interrupted and interrogated,” and that unlike Brett Kavanaugh, “who pounded his fists and yelled during his hearing, Jackson remained poised”:
Can you imagine being interrupted and repeatedly asked about a theory that you have not studied but that people assume you support because you are Black? Can you imagine being painted as a radical, though the theory, which repeatedly you say you don’t support, centers on the notion that racism is very real?
Ward also notes that while Justice Amy Coney Barrett was sharply questioned by Democrats during her own confirmation hearings, “she was not treated with the disrespect Jackson was.”
Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin called out Judiciary Committee Democrats, with one notable exception, for enabling these attacks through their cowardice. Chairman Dick Durbin, D-Ill., failed to enforce the committee’s rules, “allowing members to constantly badger Jackson.” Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., lodged a strong objection to Republican members’ conduct, but did so off camera and outside the hearing room. “Not until Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., the only African American on the committee, spoke did Republicans get their deserved pushback.”
Perhaps even more important, Rubin highlighted how the mainstream media was also culpable in enabling the racist attacks on Jackson, by failing “to convey the visual image of angry White men screaming and interrupting a Black woman, who dares not show anger for fear of being labeled unprofessional or lacking the correct temperament”:
Combined with the insinuations about her “softness” on child pornography and the hysterics on critical race theory, the aggression barely masked the Republican outpouring of White grievance.
It behooves Republicans who do not approve of this travesty to speak up. Meanwhile, Democrats should use their majority position to put an end to such conduct (cut off Republicans’ microphones or conclude the hearing until they act appropriately), and the media should not provide camouflage for it. The refusal to afford a historic nominee with respect she deserves and to denounce baseless accusations speaks volumes about our collective failure, still, to reckon with the original sin of racism.
For all of the undeserved attacks on her character, intelligence, personhood and qualifications, Jackson remained an indomitable example of Black excellence, Black dignity and Black humanity. Ironically, her poise and skill in the face of such outrageous disrespect demonstrated, in part, why so many white people of a certain political orientation — and others invested in white privilege and the status quo — remain terrified of Black Americans’ success in the face of enormous obstacles.
Jackson’s professional and personal success is a trigger for the deep anxieties and fears that many white people, especially white men, feel about their own shortcomings and inadequacies being revealed in a society that has elevated them in large part through unearned advantages. White privilege is paradoxical in that way: It is taken for granted as just being “normal,” but its beneficiaries are fearful of losing something they simultaneously refuse to admit is real.
Entirely too many political observers and pundits (the majority of which are white) insisted that Jackson’s hearing would have “no drama” and that Republicans would likely “behave themselves,” since they cannot realistically block Jackson’s confirmation and she will not change the ideological balance of the Supreme Court. Those voices were wrong, as they have been so many other things in the Age of Trump and beyond. White privilege and white racial innocence act as blinders to reality, a truth that goes well beyond those with overtly racist attitudes and runs deep in the media and political classes.
Ultimately, too many (white) members of the news media and the political elite are unable or unwilling to accept a self-evident fact: Today’s Republican Party and conservative movement are fundamentally white supremacist, and their leaders cannot abandon those beliefs and that ideology because racial hatred, bigotry and white identity politics pay great political dividends, along with other material and psychological rewards.
Even by the low standard established by the other Republicans on the Judiciary Committee who attacked Jackson, Sen. Ted Cruz’s behavior stood out as especially execrable. Two moments were especially noteworthy. At one point during last Wednesday’s proceedings, Cruz posed this “question” to Jackson:
But let me ask, under the modern leftist sensibilities, if I decide right now that I’m a woman, and apparently I’m a woman. Does that mean that I would have Article III standing to challenge a gender-based restriction?… OK, if I can change my gender, if I can be a woman and an hour later if I decide that I’m not a woman anymore, I guess I would lose Article III standing. Tell me, does that same principle apply to other protected characteristics? For example, I’m an Hispanic man. Could I decide I was an Asian man? Would I have the ability to be an Asian man and challenge Harvard’s discrimination because I made that decision? … I’m asking you how you would assess standing if I came in and said if I have decided I identify as an Asian man.
Cruz is of course engaging in fear-mongering and outright distortion about gender identity, LGBTQ rights and race. His attack on Jackson also illustrates the complexities of white supremacy and the color line in post-civil rights America, where many nonwhite people are also invested in white supremacy and anti-Black attitudes and behavior.
Cruz’s attacks on Jackson are a way for him to earn his “whiteness,” and in doing so bolster his popularity among Republican voters. Race has always been a social construct that changes over time; whiteness and what groups are deemed to be “white” are malleable categories. Cruz identified himself as “an Hispanic man” in his “questioning” of Jackson, but Hispanics and Latinos are a highly diverse ethnic and cultural group, not a “race” per se. Some members of that group are Black and brown, while others identify as “white”. Some Hispanics and Latinos are not (yet) defined as “white” in America’s system of racial categorization but yearn for whiteness and its privileges.
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In addition, “colorism” and anti-Black racism are relatively common within or between Hispanic and Latino communities and play a prominent role in such calculations and behaviors. It’s important to recognize that white supremacy is an ideology and belief system. Skin color is not a requirement for doing the work of white supremacy. Justice Clarence Thomas, to cite the most obvious example, is unquestionably a Black man who for many years has supported white supremacy through his rulings, legal philosophy and other behavior. In fact, he is one of America’s most dangerous white supremacist leaders.
Last month, well before Jackson’s confirmation hearings, Ted Cruz made his white supremacist views clear during an appearance on Fox News, claiming that “Democrats today believe in racial discrimination, they’re committed to it as a political proposition.” He was objecting to President Biden’s commitment to nominate the first Black woman to serve on the Supreme Court:
What the president said is that only African-American women are eligible for this slot … that 94% of Americans are ineligible…. I think our country has such a troubled history on race, we ought to move past discriminating based on race. The way Biden ought to do it is to say I’m going to look for the best justice, interview a lot of people. And if he happened to nominate a justice who was an African-American woman, great. But you know what? If Fox News put a posting, we’re looking for a new host for “Fox News Sunday” and we will only hire an African-American woman or a Hispanic man or a Native American woman, that would be illegal. Nobody else can do what Joe Biden did.
There is obvious partisan and racial hypocrisy at work here: Presidents have wide latitude to determine which individuals they will consider for the Supreme Court or other prominent appointments. Most notably, Ronald Reagan promised to nominate the first female Supreme Court justice, and even Donald Trump vowed to appoint a woman after Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s death. There was no outcry from Republicans about those decisions being “discriminatory.”
For most of the country’s history, full and equal citizenship in American society was not possible for Black people. Indeed, it was literally illegal: Black people were considered first and foremost human property, and even the possibility of their freedom and equality were viewed as antithetical to white freedom and white democracy.
The long arc of improving American democracy has in large part also been the story of Black Americans and their struggle to be acknowledged as full human beings and equal citizens under the law. That has made the Black Freedom Struggle in America a template for other marginalized and oppressed peoples around the world.
Ted Cruz is a highly intelligent man, a graduate of Harvard Law School. He certainly understood the context and history of his attack on Jackson in suggesting that her place in history and her seat on the Supreme Court were “illegal.”
Ketanji Brown Jackson did not allow Cruz and the other Republican attackers to make her into some type of white racist and sexist caricature. She is poised to become the first Black woman on the Supreme Court. But make no mistake: The empire always strikes back, and the Republican fascists and their followers will continue to do everything possible to destroy her, even once she is seated on the court.
Jackson will succeed and triumph nonetheless. Not because Jackson she is a “strong Black woman” — with all of the painful and often dehumanizing burdens and obligations that stereotype entails — but simply because she is a talented legal scholar, a genuine public servant and a communicator of great poise, grace and wit, who — unlike several of her future colleagues — has been preparing for this moment for decades and has earned the honor and responsibility of being a Supreme Court justice.