Celebrating Ceiling-Breakers

Thoughts on a Black Woman Breaking the Supreme Court Barrier

At the tail end of January 2022, news broke that Supreme Court justice Stephen Breyer will retire from the Court. In response, President Biden announced that he intends to nominate a Black woman to serve as the next justice. Thurgood Marshall served as the first Black Supreme Court justice in 1967. Sandra Day O’Connor was the first woman appointed to the Court in 1981. More recently, Barack Obama became our first Black President in 2008, and now Kamala Harris serves as our first woman Vice President and first person of color to hold that office.

There are many trailblazing individuals who stand as our country’s “firsts”. We’ve seen individuals with backgrounds and characteristics that could be considered overlooked, underrepresented, or oppressed shift history to assume significant leadership positions previously held only by white men. These shifts can reflect the diversity of the Ameri- can people and bring forth important perspectives. They can also ignite controversy, eliciting both backlash and celebration from the public. If Biden is successful in nominating a Black woman to be appointed to the Supreme Court, the justice would be the sixth woman to serve in the Court’s history, the second woman of color after Sonia Sotomayor, and the first Black woman.

As we consider the possibility of another historic shift and another “first”, SOWN wanted to hear from our participants to learn their thoughts on President Biden’s announcement. SOWN’s participants possess the gift of perspective, having witnessed such historic shifts in their lifetime. Most of our participants identify as women, and many are members of the Black community.

While the participants we spoke with may share characteristics of race and gender, the women are richly varied in their experiences and outlooks. They belong to different generations, as their birth years span from pre-World War II to the late 1960s. Some may have been born and raised in Philadelphia, while others spent their childhood in the rural South or other parts of mid-Atlantic before making their home in Southeastern Pennsylvania.

In our conversation with our participants, we were reminded that there are as many sides to an issue as there are differences in perspectives. It’s not as simple as two sides of a coin; it’s more like looking through a kaleidoscope. Participants expressed joy and hope at the thought of the first Black woman Supreme Court justice, some shared indifference, and we also heard concerns and frustration around tokenism and the pressure of being “the first.” As one participant summarized, “It’s touchy.”

Janice Roberson: Well, what I could say is you’re starting the ball-a-rolling. I hope it’s someone who has the qualifications. I don’t think he [President Biden] would pick anyone who’s not qualified. The world can see that Black women and Black men have the same qualifications as white men do. Everything is changed now. Black people are smart, too. Just give us a chance. We’ll be movin’ on up!

Charity Tarver: I think that it’s time that it happens… I hope that the person he [President Biden] selects is really capable of carrying out what she is selected for, instead of just being a number. Someone who is able to perform, instead of just to balance and have a Black woman on there. And there are plenty of Black women who have that qualification!

Sheila Johnson: The appointment of a Black woman to the Supreme Court is long overdue. We need a woman who understands our struggles and perspectives. We need a woman who has touched the ground before, who knows the realities of Black women’s lives.

Yolanda Hayes: I would be very proud and happy to have a Black woman nominated for the Supreme Court. Of course, I want her to be qualified. And I know she will be. And I also want her to be a person who really cares about people.

Beverly Scott: I was really excited to hear that President Biden will nominate a Black woman for the Supreme Court. I’m hoping she will look out for the less fortunate. I feel that Black people are getting more opportunities than before and this will make the world better for my granddaughter. This helps equality for all people.

Diane Lackey: I was thrilled to hear that President Biden will nominate a Black woman to the Supreme Court. It’s about time. I just hope it doesn’t get de-railed.

Hazel Smith: I love it! The Black population, especially Black women, helped President Biden get elected and he made a promise to Representative Clyburn in South Carolina. A Black woman will bring a different perspective to the Court. Black women’s voices have not been heard about so many things that impact our lives…child care; low paying jobs; unequal health care. The Court should look like America.

Diane Ward-Coleman: The appointment of a Black woman to the Supreme Court is long overdue. There are so many qualified Black women who can do the job. And that’s really important–to be qualified and to see the human side of things, to know how her decisions will impact real people.

Sarah Anchrum: I think it’s a good idea…as long as she has the education and the knowledge, I think it’s OK. It’s up to the Congress to vote on it, and the Republicans, they’re talking stuff about it already. They want to do things their way, but I’ll hope and pray it comes through.

Cheryl Williams: We need women to support women. And not only that, but to support everyone. It’s been a long time going that men have been involved in everything. And women used to stay home while the men were out at work. But now, you have women in the military, women serving different places in government. They have too many old men sitting on the Court. And we can help. I’m sure they [male Supreme Court justices] have all the knowledge and everything, but we need to break that up. It’s not only men in this world. I think actually women are brighter than men. When we come up, women mature earlier than men. We need a change. Then, maybe more Black women can follow.

Dolores Butler: I am very upset that he [President Biden] is saying he is using a Black woman because she goes down in history as being a Black woman, rather than a qualified woman. I would feel better if he said a qualified woman and instead of saying she has to be Black. I am so tired of hearing “the first Black woman,” like that’s all she has to be…I would be as offended by that remark as if he said he wanted to nominate a white woman. I want to look for a qualified woman.

Carmella White: I’m happy if a Black woman gets on the Court, but I want her to be vetted, I wanted her to have the ability. She needs to be qualified… It would make me happy, but I don’t want her to be covered over…In a way, he’s [President Biden] put a barrier in her way. She’ll have to prove herself over and over again.

Ms. Q.: The country has different nationalities so they should be represented on the Supreme Court. When my grandson saw a photo of Obama, he was so excited. He said, ‘He looks just like me!’

Ms. X: We need a change. The Supreme Court should reflect the population of the country. You get different input from different people. Even though we may be the same color, my environment may be different. When I got my Master’s degree from UPenn, I knew that I had a different exposure than the White students.

Ms. Y: I don’t care as long as they are good and honest.

Ms. Z: I am not excited that he [President Biden] is nominating the first Black woman…it doesn’t mean that they’ll be for me. There’s an African American Supreme Court judge that I was ashamed of. It doesn’t matter the color of their skin… I care whether they are concerned about the cause of African American people…African American people have suffered…are they willing to stand alone [for what they believe in]?

Historic Justice

President Biden nominated Ketanji Brown Jackson, 51, to replace Justice Stephen Breyer. Should she be confirmed, she’d be the first Black woman to serve on the Supreme Court in its 232 year history (which spans 115 Justices for those counting at home).

Ms. Jackson served on the influential US Court of Appeals for the DC circuit. Three current justices previously served on the court. She has two degrees from Harvard University, and was editor of the Harvard Law Review.

Fast Facts About Justice Jackson

  • Served as Justice Breyer’s law clerk after she graduated from Harvard Law School.
  • At Harvard, she led protests against a student who displayed a Confederate flag from his dorm window. She also performed improv comedy and took classes in drama.
  • She’s been confirmed by the Senate on a bipartisan basis three times.
  • If confirmed, she would be the first former federal public defender to serve on the Supreme Court.
  • Her aunt, on a Peace Corp assignment in Liberia, suggested the name “Ketanji Onyika” to her parents, which means “lovely one.”
  • She shares a birthday with Constance Baker Motley, the first Black woman ever to be appointed as a federal judge (1966).
  • A native Washingtonian, Jackson moved to Florida as a young child with her parents, graduates of historically Black colleges and universities who worked as public schoolteachers.

ABOUT SOWN The Supportive Older Womens Network serves grandparent-headed families, caregivers for loved ones, and vulnerable older adults in the Greater Philadelphia region. A grassroots news partner with WHYY/N.I.C.E.
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This column was written by Lori Latimer, SOWN’s Director of Programs. Read last month’s column here

About SOWN 17 Articles
SOWN strengthens community support networks, reduces social isolation, and improves the well-being of older adults, especially women and their families. It offers a number of resources, including peer counseling groups by phone and in person, individual counseling, educational workshops, and resource referrals.

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