Dear America: Get Your Knee Off Our Necks

Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson is not asking for favors. She is asking to be given the opportunity 115 people have had before her—the overwhelming majority of them white men.

ketanji-brown-jackson-senate-republicans-racism-sexism-black-woman-supreme-court
Supreme Court nominee Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson testifies on the third day of her confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday, Mar. 23. (Jabin Botsford / The Washington Post via Getty Images)

From time to time, Reverend Al Sharpton’s words at George Floyd’s memorial ring in my head. These past two days they have rung particularly loudly: “Get your knee off our necks.” As I witnessed several of our U.S. senators intentionally smear and disrespect Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson during her confirmation hearing this week, I wanted to shout those words, “America, get your knee off our necks.”

The late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is well known for saying something very similar when she argued before the Supreme Court in Frontiero v. Richardson, a case about sex discrimination. She said, “I ask no favor for my sex. All I ask of our brethren is that they take their feet off our necks.” This is actually a quote by Sarah Moore Grimke, an abolitionist and women’s rights activist, but it was apropos in 1973, just as the variation of it was in 2020.

This week was a painful reminder of the racism and sexism that motivated Sharpton’s and RBG’s requests. The badgering, character assassination, distortions and dog-whistling by Republican senators were disgraceful and pathetic—and painful.

These senators know Jackson is exceptionally well qualified, but rather than have a dignified discussion deserving of the circumstances, they reminded us why Jackson is the first Black woman to be nominated to the Supreme Court.

Jackson’s experience in these hearings is painfully familiar to people of color because it is our daily reality in this country. Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) knows this too, and thank goodness for his words on Wednesday when we (including Jackson) all needed them. His vow that his Republican colleagues “will not steal my joy,” was exactly what I myself needed to hear after watching hours and hours of distorted, racist attacks against one of the most qualified legal minds in this country. Jackson’s tears in response to Booker matched my own, and I know matched those of millions of other people of color and women.

Jackson’s poise and grace under those unprofessional and undignified lines of questioning and lectures were beyond impressive. Her perseverance also made me a little sad because one could tell she has dealt with similar instances in her life before, like nearly all people of color have. She could brush this off in the moment, like a tissue to a tear, and forge ahead because she has had to be stronger and better her entire life.

She said as much herself when, in response to a question from Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Calif.), she explained that the one piece of advice she gives future diverse generations is to persevere. She shared the questions that she has asked herself: “Do I belong here? Can I make it in this environment?” I know these questions well and so appreciated Jackson’s simple and yet powerful advice to persevere.

In her opening statement, she mentioned that her parents experienced “lawful racial segregation” a generation ago. And she knows all too well that her daughters also will have to persevere. I kept thinking about perseverance during the hearings as three generations of Jackson’s family sat through the painful diatribes of several senators, and I wondered how many more generations would have to endure this same treatment.

As Sharpton expressed at the George Floyd memorial, “We don’t want favors; just get up off of us, and we can be and do whatever we can be.” Jackson is not asking for favors. She is asking to be given the opportunity that 115 people have had before her—the overwhelming majority of them white men. She acknowledged this, when she noted that she is standing on the shoulders of generations before her who did not have this opportunity. Not because there weren’t Black woman as qualified, but because this country did not see them as worthy. And this week was a reminder that many still do not.

But I will not let those senators steal my joy during this historic and long-overdue confirmation process. After four long days, this fact is undeniable: Jackson is exceptionally well-qualified to serve on the Supreme Court. She served with distinction for over eight years on the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, where she wrote nearly 600 opinions. Since last summer, she has served on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. She has been confirmed by this same Senate Judiciary Committee three separate times, including last June.

I kept thinking about perseverance during the hearings as three generations of Jackson’s family sat through the painful diatribes of several senators, and I wondered how many more generations would have to endure this same treatment.

As Wade Henderson, interim president of The Leadership Conference, said, “By any standard, Judge Jackson’s record, both on and off the bench, her academic achievements, are unparalleled with almost anyone who has been appointed to the Supreme Court.”

Jackson would bring professional diversity to the court with her extensive and laudable career in public service, including her years as a public defender and on the U.S. Sentencing Commission. Her experience and perspective would help the court better understand the law’s effects on people’s rights and lives. If she is confirmed, our country will be better off with her as a justice on our highest court.

Jackson should be confirmed with an overwhelming bipartisan vote. However, that’s not the world in which we find ourselves, still. Having watched the four days of hearings, I am not holding out hope for a 100-0 vote. But I am holding out hope that history will soon be made, and Judge Jackson will become Justice Jackson—with a bipartisan vote. And from henceforth all Black women and girls will finally see themselves on our highest court.  

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About

Zinelle October is the executive vice president of the American Constitution Society, the country’s foremost progressive legal organization.