Despite Their Credentials, Black Women Are Often Asked To Prove Themselves And Ketanji Brown Jackson Is No Anomaly
We fuel unconscious bias when we don’t see a judge in the top position at a national scale who is a Black woman.
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Recently, I opened my phone at a Black law students’ convention to see that President Biden had nominated a Black woman, Ketanji Brown Jackson, to the Supreme Court. A murmur went around the room as everyone heard the news. We knew it was a huge moment in American history.
400 people from various fields of the law were present at the convention — from pre-law students, Black law students, alumni to lawyers and judges. Black people are disproportionately represented in the field of law. Black people make up 5% of attorneys in the United States and Black women make up 2%. These percentages display that Black people are extremely underrepresented in the legal population compared to the American population, of which we comprise 13.4% (as of March 2022). There is unconscious bias in society that reinforces the barriers which prevent equal representations in fields like law.
Unconscious bias is everywhere. Even when speaking to current lawyers, I hear them say that when they walk into a courtroom they are perceived as the defendant, the clerk, the assistant or the security guard. Not the lawyer. Not the judge. It happens over and over and over. We fuel unconscious bias when we don’t see a judge in the top position at a national scale who is a Black woman. It means we don’t perceive Black women as judges. The cycle continues.
So far, I’ve seen a mixed reception to Judge Jackson’s nomination. For many Black women like myself, this is a milestone because Judge Jackson will break glass ceilings. However, I’ve heard other people question Judge Jackson’s capability because of her identity as a Black woman. Most recently, I heard a political commentator ask that President Biden share Judge Jackson’s Law School Admissions Test (LSAT) score.
Why must a two-time Harvard graduate, former Editor-In-Chief of the Harvard Law Review, a current federal judge on the Court of Appeals need to show her LSAT scores to be qualified? I do not recall hearing the demand for other past Supreme court nominees to reveal their LSAT scores. I imagine this request is solely because Judge Jackson is a Black woman. We are asked to prove ourselves over and over.
I grew up in Central Brooklyn, and I’ll graduate from law school in 2024. I never saw myself as an attorney, but I never saw myself as political either. Like many young women of my generation, I found myself becoming politically engaged when I saw issues in my community. I realized they would get decided for me if I wasn’t at the table advocating. I went to a New York event for IGNITE, a bipartisan organization dedicated to young women’s political leadership. I met dozens of other young women interested in running for office and I’m still in touch with them on our “girl squad” chat. Then, I got a job as a constituent affairs director working in the State Assembly.
While working there, I came across many Haitian immigrants who needed legal representation. I’d refer them to attorneys, but they would express concern. Will the lawyer look like me? Will they speak Haitian Creole? Are they passionate about helping me? There is a lot of violence happening in Haiti and a lot of people are migrating. Those people need people they can trust to advocate on their behalf. That’s when I realized I could go to law school and become an attorney and help.
We place successful Black people on a pedestal. We don’t think of them as human. But Justice Jackson, when she is confirmed, will face hostility. Like President Barack Obama and his wife Michelle, she will have to face it down with grace. She will have to work alongside people who disagree with her. But I want her to know there is a huge swathe of people, like me, for whom her nomination means a great deal — and we are rooting for her to succeed.
Rebeca Lafond is a law student at CUNY School of Law, class of 2024. She’s an alum of IGNITE, the country’s largest, most diverse organization dedicated to young women’s political leadership.