Welcome to the Supreme Court of the United States, Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson! As the first Black woman to serve on the high court, you will bring not only your brilliance but also your unique life experience to an institution that has never centered the needs or rights of Black women, to say the least. Unfortunately, you’re being sworn in with the dumpster fire of this last term still blazing in the background.
The court’s 6-3 right-wing majority, which your thrilling appointment, alas, cannot shift, last week stripped women of our 50-year constitutional right to abortion, which will disproportionately harm Black women. Also, given our nation’s history of environmental racism, Thursday’s ruling restricting the Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to promulgate regulations to limit climate change will also hit Black women hardest. Oh yes, the decision making it easier to get concealed-carry gun permits will probably do the same. Coincidentally, the same day as Jackson’s swearing-in, The Guardian published an investigation that found the murder rate for Black women has risen since 2019, and that a major cause is the increasing availability of guns. Three in four Black women killed in 2020 were murdered with a gun.
Sorry to be such a killjoy.
I watched Brown’s swearing-in with happiness, because I firmly believe in celebrating progress in an age of racist and sexist backlash. We need a little joy in our lives. Still, on Friday morning, I couldn’t help think of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s not-so-famous worry on the eve of his death. He told the American civil rights hero Harry Belafonte, “We have fought hard and long for integration, as I believe we should have, and I know that we will win. But I’ve come to believe we’re integrating into a burning house.”
The Supreme Court is figuratively burning right now: burning its credibility as any kind of trustworthy arbiter of what’s constitutionally sound, reversing precedent not because it’s legally required but just because it can. Its public approval and trust ratings are at a historic low. So are we watching our first Black woman justice integrating into a burning house?
Here’s a little more background on what King said and how Belafonte replied. The singer, actor, and activist recounted, “I was taken aback” by King’s despair. He asked the movement leader to explain.
“I’m afraid that America may be losing what moral vision she may have had,” King answered. “And I’m afraid that even as we integrate, we are walking into a place that does not understand that this nation needs to be deeply concerned with the plight of the poor and disenfranchised. Until we commit ourselves to ensuring that the underclass is given justice and opportunity, we will continue to perpetuate the anger and violence that tears at the soul of this nation.” King was on the verge of launching the Poor People’s Campaign, which sought to unite a multiracial movement to fight poverty. He was assassinated before he could lead it.
Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson is absolutely committed “to ensuring that the underclass is given justice and opportunity.” The only member of the court to have served as a public defender—the last was, no surprise, the late Thurgood Marshall, who was the first Black justice—she is sure to introduce new thinking to this backward group. And to perhaps change its sad trajectory in unpredictable ways.
I have been musing a lot this week about University of California–Irvine professor Michele Goodwin’s argument that the legal defense of abortion rights could have been based on the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery and the 14th Amendment’s protection of the formerly enslaved’s full citizenship. As she wrote: “Mandated, forced or compulsory pregnancy contravenes enumerated rights in the Constitution, namely the 13th Amendment’s prohibition against involuntary servitude and protection of bodily autonomy, as well as the 14th Amendment’s defense of privacy and freedom.” Key to her argument is the fact that “mandated, forced or compulsory pregnancy” among enslaved Black women kept the horrific system humming. (Please read the whole thing; I can’t do it justice here.)
I’m not saying that all Black women legal giants do or should think alike. I’m just noticing that they see things others don’t. There will surely be many such insights from Justice Brown. “I hope that she will change the alchemy of the court,” Janai Nelson of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund told MSNBC. That might sound like magical and not the legal thinking Nelson is known for, but I know what she means. You cannot introduce a figure as extraordinary as Brown into a skirmishing, respect-losing, nine-member body, and not see some kind of… alteration. Even alchemy.
In terms of my nagging worry that Brown is “integrating into a burning house,” I’ll let Belafonte have the last word. Reflecting on King’s statement, he cited two Black women warriors for justice, Rosa Parks and Ella Baker, and expressed his lifelong optimism: “Perhaps we are the firefighters who can save the burning house. Martin would have embraced such a thought.”