Let me fix that headline for you, Washington Post: It’s not “Race hovered over Ketanji Brown Jackson’s confirmation hearing.” It’s “Racism hovered over Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson’s confirmation hearing.” Although, really, racism was so prevalent in the hearing that the way it hovered was, COVID-like, in the air after belching out of the mouths of Republican senators like Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz.
While reporters at publications like the Post are not necessarily responsible for their headlines, in this case, the wording comes directly from the awful article Seung Min Kim and Marianna Sotomayor wrote, rife with information gaps that would have been easy to fill in. For instance, the article’s description of Cruz haranguing of Jackson over a children’s book on the reading list at the school her daughters attended and where she sits on the board doesn’t note that some of those same books are available at the private school to which he sends his own daughters, a school that “must be antiracist and eliminate racism of any type—including institutional racism—within our school community and beyond,” according to its leaders.
In the hearing, Kim and Sotomayor write, race “serv[ed] as both a source of ebullience for the judge’s supporters and an avenue for contentious questions that sometimes carried racial undertones.” Sometimes? Undertones? Those tones were not under. When multiple Republicans knew they were about to be so racist that they had to defensively insist ahead of time that they were totally not being racist, it wasn’t an undertone.
Cruz, before going on to focus at length on race and critical race theory and children’s books about racism that are entirely unrelated to Jackson’s past, current, or future work as a judge: “It’s not about race.”
Sen. Marsha Blackburn similarly kept talking about those children’s books and that private K-12 school, trying to link Jackson to race and critical race theory in the minds of the Fox News viewers watching highlight reels. When multiple senators from one party keep talking about the same thing that is not relevant to the work of a Supreme Court justice, it’s a giant red flag that we need to look at what exactly they are trying to do. And, no matter how coy about it Kim and Sotomayor chose to be, what Republicans were trying to do was make Jackson’s nomination and confirmation all about race, subordinating her stellar qualifications to the culture war that Republicans have spent the past year working so hard to get their supporters whipped up about.
Sen. Lindsey Graham: “On our side, it’s about, we’re all racist, if we ask hard questions.” Graham’s questions included a ragingly inappropriate series of questions about Jackson’s religion, questions that, to be fair, in their substance were less about race than about settling scores from Justice Amy Coney Barrett’s confirmation hearings. But they weren’t just “hard questions.” They were questions that violated the spirit of the Constitution and its ban on religious tests for public office. They were sneeringly contemptuous questions that communicated to Jackson and everyone watching that Graham knew she couldn’t be anything but respectful and controlled, and he was going to take advantage of every moment of it. It was the prospect of an angry white Southern man spitting disrespect at a Black woman—making her the target of rage he admitted was about other people and other times—because he could.
As Elie Mystal wrote, in an absolute must-read at The Nation, of Jackson’s pained, careful pause when Cruz asked her if babies can be racist:
In that pregnant moment, everybody in the whole country who was watching got to see whiteness at work. Everybody knew that Ted Cruz got to stand up there and call Ketanji Brown Jackson whatever he wanted to, and nobody would stop him. Everybody knew that Jackson could not respond in kind if she wanted the job. And everybody knew that, in the same situation, Kavanaugh could and did sneer at his questioners, threaten the Senate with political retribution, and declare his undying love for beer, without hurting his chances at unaccountable lifetime power. Power he now holds.
That pause, that moment, that clear difference in the range of human possibilities afforded to Jackson and Kavanaugh—that’s racism, folks. That’s sexism. That silence was a clearer definition of the thing than I could give in a thousand words. I can’t prove it, but I saw it. And Jackson saw it. And Booker saw it. And Padilla saw it. And I can only hope that people of good faith and decency saw it, too.
That was the subtext of how Republican after Republican treated Jackson. It was the subtext of their persistent efforts to link her to critical race theory, a term they strained to connect her to in any factual way but came back to again and again during the hearings, while the Republican National Committee tweeted a graphic of Jackson with her initials, KBJ, being crossed out and replaced with “CRT,” literally declaring the woman to be one with the legal theory that Republicans have worked to make synonymous with any anti-racism at all. It was the subtext of their efforts to portray her as soft on crime, after decades of Republicans working to link Blackness and crime in the public imagination.
Completely absent from Kim and Sotomayor’s discussion of how “race” was present in the hearing are Hawley’s strenuous efforts to link Jackson to child pornography, a massive bit of hypocrisy from a senator who has repeatedly voted to confirm judges who had previously imposed sentences similar to those he was castigating Jackson for and who himself, as a prosecutor, gave one sexual offender a plea deal involving no jail time. But a strategic bit of hypocrisy from someone who knows that the audience that matters to him—Fox News and its viewership—will never, ever call it out or care.
All of this is not just “race” mysteriously hovering over the proceedings. And it is not the same as Democrats celebrating Jackson’s achievements in the knowledge that, as Sen. Cory Booker said, “You got here how every Black woman in America has gotten anywhere has done. By being—like Ginger Rogers said, ‘I did everything Fred Astaire did, but backwards and in high heels.’” Kim and Sotomayor work as hard to establish that false equivalency between Democrats’ celebrations of Jackson and Republican racist attacks on her as Republicans did to tie Jackson to crime and critical race theory, and it’s just as false. Booker and Sen. Alex Padilla would not have had to spend the time they did talking about the importance of race in this nomination and lifting up Jackson if Republicans had not been working so hard to drag her into the mud. Booker was crystal clear on that, saying, “I’m not letting anybody in the Senate steal my joy,” words he would not have had to say if several people in the Senate hadn’t been trying so very hard. The most substantive Democratic discussions of Jackson’s race were not things that just happened because race was there, hovering mysteriously. They were reactive, because Republican racism was there, being spewed out in great bursts.
This confirmation hearing was an offense, an abomination, a grinding of acid into a gaping wound in U.S. society and history. And The Washington Post is letting that stand as business as usual.
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