Op/Ed

Ways of Seeing: Why we put women of color in power

MARY E. MENDOZA

There is a lot of pain in the world right now. People continue to fall victim daily to a global pandemic. War has broken out in Europe. In our own backyard, we continue to see Black, brown, and indigenous people killed by the police. Women’s reproductive rights are being stripped from them. Hate runs through our streets. Our southwestern border is stained with the blood of migrants and refugees, many killed by the targeted, racialized violence of a border control apparatus made up of ICE agents and border fences. Black, brown, and native folks are diagnosed with debilitating diseases at much higher rates that white ones due to environmental toxic exposure. In short, overall things are grim. In 2022 America, racial inequality and racism still loom unbelievably large.

Even with all of these things and more happening, life must go on. At the end of last month, for instance, Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer announced that he intends to retire from the U.S. Supreme Court. That means, of course, that Joe Biden will get to nominate his replacement and as of this week, we know who he has chosen.

Ketanji Brown Jackson is his pick. Jackson went to Harvard — twice. She has served in the Office of the Federal Public Defender, which is an uncommon occurrence for Supreme Court picks, but means she knows the ins and outs of the criminal justice system. She has already been confirmed by the Senate twice. She is known as an incredible public speaker. She has also worked for a private law firm. In her early years, she clerked for prestigious justices and judges, including Stephen Breyer. She served as Commissioner for the U.S. Sentencing Commission as well as a federal judge for the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. From all accounts, she seems to not only be exceptionally qualified for the job, she also appears to have an impeccable, scandal-free record.

Oh, and she is also a Black woman.

I didn’t list her race last because I think that the beauty of this historic moment should be downplayed or because I don’t think it is important and shouldn’t be celebrated. Believe me, as a historian of race in the United States and a woman of color, I watched Joe Biden introduce Judge Jackson and then watched her moving remarks as tears formed in my eyes, much like I did when I watched Kamala Harris speak after her 2021 inauguration and as I did when Sonia Sotomayor accepted her nomination from Barak Obama to the country’s highest court. Seeing these women in these positions of power matters. It matters for women like me and it matters for young people to see and understand that women of color belong in these spaces.

That last part of my last paragraph, though, bears repeating: women of color belong in these spaces. Not just because “representation matters,” but because we have earned our place in these spaces.

The other day I was sitting in a public place and the news was on and, for a moment, the newscaster discussed the impending nomination of a Black woman. Someone in my earshot said the predictable, “never mind who the best candidate is, let’s just pick someone because she is a Black woman.” If I had felt better that day, they probably would have regretted saying that within my earshot because what they said is extremely problematic. It’s also wrong, and it’s racist, and it fuels further racism. Here’s why: in 2022 America, racial inequality and racism still loom very large.

That means that there are both structures in place that prevent people like Judge Jackson from ever getting close to places like Harvard and people who actively want to prevent people like Judge Jackson from getting into positions like Supreme Court Justice or Vice President or CEO or tenured professor or any other position that they have more than earned. Because of these people and structures, we have to seek out people like Judge Jackson and hold space for them in order to offset those sometimes otherwise impenetrable barriers. And then, when we do hold space for them, reducing them to their race erases everything they have done to get to where they are. Because in the end, those people of color who make it into the rare position of power do so because in order to get there they had to be better and work harder than just about any of their white counterparts.

We need better language to discuss holding historically denied space for qualified people to fill positions. Diversity hires, quota fillers, all of the ways we discuss these things only hurt those who killed themselves to get into those positions.

Anyone who denies them that by making false claims about them getting something because of the color of their skin should take a look around. This nation is still run by white men and many of those white men are still allowing minorities to die at the hands of the state. Please don’t diminish this historical moment and Judge Jackson’s trailblazing achievements by claiming this nation is giving people of color handouts.

Mary E. Mendoza is an assistant professor of history and Latino/a Studies at Penn State University. She lives in Weybridge, Vermont.

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