‘Nothing takes away from this day’: Community reacts as Ketanji Brown Jackson becomes the first Black woman on Supreme Court

President Joe Biden and Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson embrace as the Senate votes Thursday on her High Court confirmation.  (Susan Walsh)

Once Ketanji Brown Jackson had been confirmed as the U.S. Supreme Court’s first Black woman judge Thursday afternoon, news footage showed members of Congress standing in applause, recognizing her achievement.

While Kiantha Duncan, president of Spokane’s NAACP chapter, agreed with the gesture, she also worries about what’s to come.

After listening to the questions asked of Jackson during her Senate confirmation hearings, Duncan worries Jackson could be on the receiving end of racist actions.

“First thought – I am excited and afraid. I am hopeful and worried,” Duncan said. “I think she is in a position that can change how people see Black women, how people interpret Black excellence, how people interpret Black education, but all those things set her up to be a target of attack for people who are not ready for America to move in the direction that it’s moving in.”

The Senate voted 53 to 47 to confirm Jackson as the first Black woman to serve on the Supreme Court in its 233-year history. She is the 116th justice to be confirmed to the Supreme Court.

Duncan is confident Jackson has a full understanding of what it means to be a Black woman who is the first in a high-stakes position.

“The good thing about her, and most Black women who are in positions of power and leadership, is that we understand the assignment,” Duncan said. “And no assignment is more challenging than the last, so we figure it out. And, in the course of us figuring it out, we bring America along with us.”

Active in the community, Duncan has heard from different sides what makes Jackson’s confirmation important for Americans. Duncan hopes Jackson’s confirmation will inspire the next generation of Americans, the country’s most diverse ever, to tackle any of their goals and achievements. This is the first time in history during which the majority of the Supreme Court is not white male.

“For kids of color who get to see this? … When kids are able to see that, women of color, people of color are able to attain those levels,” Duncan said. “It strengthens them and it makes them empowered to dream and to work hard to get to wherever it is that they aspire to be.”

Danielle Wingfield-Smith, a legal historian and visiting professor with the Gonzaga University School of Law’s Center for Civil and Humans Rights, said she was “struck by the gravity” of Jackson’s achievement.

“Today is certainly one for all the history books, but it’s also a moment that deserves all the attention,” Wingfield-Smith said. “You have to think about 200 or so years of the Supreme Court’s existence and we’re just now, today, getting the first Black woman in the highest court of the land … Our history is far-reaching, but it’s short, when you think about it.

“I’m looking at the news today and we have Vice President (Kamala) Harris, the first Black woman to hold that position, preside over the vote today for Judge Jackson. Wow, what a moment. It’s just a lot of history being made today.”

Wingfield-Smith expects Jackson to bring “a new perspective on the court as a Black woman,” but also a fresh lens from Jackson’s prior duties as a public defender. She called Jackson’s point of view a “benefit to the court.”

“We can expect her to take that same careful, detailed analysis of every claim in every case with a methodological approach,” Wingfield-Smith said. “Especially where she looks for relevant statutes while combing over the precedent. I think we can expect her to take on every case like that, where she’s doing her judicial due diligence and making sure she comes out on the right side of the law.”

Since spring 2020, America’s businesses, institutions and other entities have discussed how they can implement more equitable and inclusive measures in light of the police killing of George Floyd. Duncan believes that the talks of having entities reflect the American people did not start at that time, but demand for equity grew . She pointed to Shirley Chisolm, the first Black woman who ran for president, in the 1972 presidential election. A native New Yorker, Chisholm was the first Black woman elected to Congress in 1968.

“There’s always people who understand the value of having a Black woman’s voice in the major cables of the world,” Duncan said. “What is different, it’s now becoming not an ask, but a demand. We demand that you recognize our contributions and demand that you see our love for this country and our willingness to do our best on behalf of the country.

“It’s always been something that people have wanted.”

Jerrall Haynes, Spokane’s first Civil Rights Coordinator, said Jackson’s confirmation is an example of what he envisions for the city. He says the centurieslong wait for the first Black woman on the Supreme Court is “a reminder that all of that waiting has been worth it.”

“To have somebody as strong, intelligent, thoughtful, caring as Judge Jackson, taking a seat in the highest court of the land, whose job it is to ensure that American people are given the promise of equal justice, I think that makes for a beautiful day and a beautiful future,” he said. “I just hope that so many other people truly understand … how important it is to so many people, like my mom, my sister, my grandma, who didn’t get to live to see this day and my heart breaks for her today, but I am very proud that the day finally came.”

While many ponder what is to come, Duncan, Wingfield-Smith, Haynes and others, especially Black women, will relish the current moment. No matter the speculations of how things will go for Jackson, that is enough for many.

“I just lean back into what Corey Booker said in real time during the confirmation. Nothing is going to take away my pride and joy today,” Duncan said. “None of the challenges, none of the fears, just nothing takes away from this day. This is good. And we are proud.”