Ketanji Brown Jackson and the prism of experience

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Each of us is a product of our experiences. Understanding them helps us see that which makes the other human. This seems particularly important to me as we watch the confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson unfold.

Jackson stands to be the first African-American woman appointed to the Supreme Court. She stands on the precipice of being a historic first, and for many African-American women in particular they see themselves and their own struggles in her.

For many who have forged careers in predominantly white spaces and paths through predominantly white institutions, this includes a sense that they have been demeaned and disrespected because of their race. Persistent Republican questioning on subjects that many liberal commentators felt to be irrelevant to the question of her judicial competence evoke familiar feelings of having to patiently endure condescension whereas a white man might be allowed to respond with righteous anger.

“Brett Kavanaugh was allowed to do that, to show his righteous indignation,” the New York Times quotes Professor Andra Gillespie, a black woman, as saying. “But if Ketanji Brown Jackson had done that, we’d be talking about the angry black woman being temperamentally unfit.”

No doubt many black women and others felt this way observing parts of these hearings, a significant part of which included references to the prior confirmation hearings for Trump appointee Brett Kavanaugh…references that many democrats considered to be irrelevant to the issue at hand.

Yet for Republicans, the experience of Brett Kavanaugh was highly relevant in a way that is of a piece with the way that many on the right are experiencing the coverage of these confirmation hearings now.

In an age where many conservative leaning and white Americans feel themselves presumed to be misogynist and racist merely on account of their politics, race or gender, the accusations leveled against Kavanaugh and the outrage they engendered seemed a product not of the credibility of the evidence put forward against him but rather a smear on his character allowed only because he was a conservative white man.
Thus writes Isaac Schorr and Britney Bernstein at National Review “…Brett Kavanaugh, endured hell when Democrats abandoned any sense of objectivity, taking an uncorroborated allegation of sexual assault from thirty years ago and treated it as the gospel truth.” Commenting on hearings in which Republican senators opened by praising Jackson for her personal charm and the historic nature of her nomination Schorr and Bernstein conclude by saying “Ketanji Brown Jackson will no doubt face some tough lines of questioning over the course of her confirmation process, but she should wake up every day this week thanking God she wasn’t nominated by a Republican.”

We can argue with the validity of each others claims. But the validity of our experiences, whether or not they arise in part at least out of misinterpretations, must be addressed with a humility that recognizes that the bias that affects the human condition is not merely an affliction of my opponent but is something I am vulnerable to as well.

Yet if we can take heart from these hearings it is because of the humanity that shines through even our flawed elected officials.

Corey Booker and Ted Cruz alike have been ridiculed by their opposing sides for their conduct whether in these hearings or in those of Brett Kavanaugh. Yet, though differing with Cruz, Booker stated for Justice Jackson and all to hear with respect to the Texas Senator that Ted Cruz “…is my friend. He is my friend, I like him…in this culture of tribal politics, the reality is we know each other, we get to know each other over years, and I’ve had the privilege of working with Ted on a lot of really good policy.”

It may not seem like much…but in a sense it is everything. When the bonds of affection break entirely, contempt and even violence bleed between us. It is through hearing one another that we begin to move back towards friendship. And that is a cause we can never abandon.

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