Comment: Maligning a Black woman before we even know her name

Critics assume Biden’s pick for the court is unqualified because that has been the lot of Black women.

By Robin Givhan / The Washington Post

Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., is fretful that the Black woman that President Biden has promised to nominate to the Supreme Court will be a “beneficiary” of affirmative action; suggesting that the racial justice program is merely code for “favor” and those who are uplifted by it are wholly unworthy of their ascent.

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, is offended by Biden’s decision to appoint this yet-to-be-identified Black woman to the highest court. He is beside himself with worry that all the white men and women who Biden will not be considering will have their feelings grievously wounded because this snub will make it plain that the president doesn’t care about them one little bit. They will feel discounted because this achievement was supposed to be theirs and Biden is callously taking it away and that’s not fair and this country was built on the principle of fairness.

And Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, has a multitude of concerns; as she so often does. She’s concerned that the process of filling the seat soon to be vacated by Associate Justice Stephen Breyer will be frightfully rushed. She’s concerned that Biden’s handling of the nomination has thus far been clumsy. And boy, oh boy, is she concerned that Supreme Court selections are getting terribly politicized now that Biden has reiterated his campaign pledge to elevate a Black woman to the court.

Yes, it is true that President Ronald Reagan promised to choose the court’s first woman and President Donald Trump made it clear he’d be replacing the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg with another woman, and President George H.W. Bush focused his search on a jurist to succeed Thurgood Marshall on people of color. That was different, mostly because the leading contenders in those instances were not Black women.

The idea of a Black female justice has gotten so many Republicans ruffled before they even have a specific person with whom to take issue. They are agitated and distressed by the audacity of the idea. They’re perturbed about the ramifications of such an intentional decision, as if centuries of intentional decisions didn’t give the country a Supreme Court with 108 white male justices. Four white women. Two Black men. One Latina. And no Black women.

Over the years, the process of nominating and confirming new justices has moved at lightning speed and at a glacial pace. It has even stalled. It has been a bipartisan lovefest and it has been bitterly divided. Yes, it was once more apolitical and now it is fraught with politics. And still, there has never been a Black woman on the Supreme Court despite the myriad ones who are qualified.

Now that Biden has made his intentions clear, some Republicans have begun the process of declaring this not-yet-named Black woman unqualified before her qualifications are even known. Because they have little hope of blocking her confirmation, they are planting the seeds of inferiority in the public consciousness. Whoever she is, she won’t matter. That is their message.

The women who have been mentioned as possible nominees, such as Ketanji Brown Jackson and J. Michelle Childs, are as credentialed as any of the justices who currently sit on the court. But they’re afflicted by stereotypes that Black women, in particular, too often have a difficult time shaking off presumptions that have some people viewing them as both threatening and unworthy. To some minds, they are unruly and angry even when they are merely making their case for fair treatment and their fair share. They most certainly are not refined and dignified, a position Wicker took when he noted that with Breyer’s retirement the court was losing “a nice, stately, left-wing liberal” who would likely be replaced by “someone who’s probably more in the style of Sonia Sotomayor,” which presumably means that the only Latina justice in the history of the court is not-very-nice and not-very-stately and is so far removed from being liberal or even left-wing that her positions are positively unspeakable.

In keeping a campaign promise, Biden has also waded into the confounding contradiction of our own making: Race is both essential and irrelevant. Blackness has nothing to do with one’s ability to write legal opinions, parse legal doctrine and question lawyers. But it’s woven into our understanding of how this country works in reality rather than in the mythic stories that some people tell themselves. Race is the third rail and the guardrails of our culture. And if presidents can boast about putting a mother with school-age children on the bench or a man who was the son of an immigrant father on the court because those characteristics arguably make them a more nuanced and relatable justice, then surely a Black woman’s lifetime of experiences — not universal, but valuable — are necessary to the court and something to be intentional about since that’s the only way it seems the court will finally reap the benefits of them.

When Trump promised to nominate a woman to fill the seat left vacant by Ginsburg, that decision was greeted with a nod and polite applause. During Justice Amy Coney Barrett’s confirmation in 2020, conservatives repeatedly referenced her seven children. They marveled at her ability to balance her maternal responsibilities with her professional accomplishments and they oozed admiration for her devotion to family. They planted her atop a pedestal of divine femininity; a kind of glorification that rarely shines on Black women. The stories of Black mothers tend to be about their struggles and having to go it alone without the aid of spouse or partner.

Conservatives made it clear that they were enthusiastic about Barrett in large measure because she was a woman; their kind of woman. They delighted in the specificity of her story and her world view. They saw great merit in her individual life story. They have not allowed for the specificity of a Black woman. The person Biden eventually names very well may not be their kind of woman. But instead of critics holding their ire until they could attack a particular Black woman, they’ve simply decided to malign them all.

Robin Givhan is senior critic-at-large writing about politics, race and the arts. A 2006 Pulitzer Prize winner for criticism, Givhan has also worked at Newsweek/Daily Beast, Vogue magazine and the Detroit Free Press.

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