“White liberals are those who have perfected the art of selling themselves to the black man as our ‘friend’ to get our sympathy, our allegiance and our minds. The white liberal attempts to use us politically against white conservatives, so that anything the black man does is never for his own good, never for his advancement, never for his own progress, he’s only a pawn in the hands of the white liberal.” – Malcolm X
While running for president in 2020, then presidential candidate Joe Biden made a promise that if he had an opportunity to appoint a supreme court justice, that unequivocally he would nominate the first African American woman to the supreme court. On Feburary 25, 2022 he kept that promise and nominated Judge Ketanji B. Jackson, a federal judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit since 2021. She will be nominated to replace Justice Stephen Breyer who has served as a justice on the supreme court for well over two decades. One would argue that the court is evolving and progress is being made. After all, it is true that in the court’s history there have only been two African Americans to serve and five women, and out of those seven who have been non-white men, six have come in the past 41 years. One could certainly suggest that this has shown tremendous progress individually speaking and cause for joy in the nomination of Judge Jackson, but as we will discuss, institutionally little has changed and therefore what we are seeing is the path to self-empowerment for African America and its institutions continue to narrow.
Judge Jackson is a Miami, Florida native and according to her Wikipedia page, the child of two HBCU graduates. However, she would go on to matriculate Harvard University for both undergraduate and law school. She has had one of the most diverse law careers since Thurgood Marshall having served as a public defender, in private practice, and more. Her career has seen her represent and defend corporations, criminal cases, and a myriad of other legal interest. A rarity among most legal professionals who tend to specialize early in their career in order to maximize their efforts within a pipeline. There is no question that she is beyond qualified to be a supreme court justice. It also does not hurt some would argue that she is married to a sixth-generation Harvard graduate as well and the connections and network that that brings is significant much in the way the Harvard connections and network were for former president Barack Obama and his ascension to the presidency. And therefore it raises the question of, if her resume read Howard University, Southern University, Florida A&M University, North Carolina Central University, or lastly, Texas Southern University for both her undergraduate and law school degrees (these being the five HBCUs with law schools) would she have been chosen? Were she also married to a graduate from those schools would she have been chosen? Based on recent and current narratives, that answer would certainly be no.
There are currently nine supreme court justices. Of those nine, eight have law degrees from either Harvard or Yale’s law schools and the ninth, Justice Amy C. Barrett, received her J.D. from Notre Dame’s law school. Among the three living retired supreme court justices, Sandra Day O’Connor (Stanford), Anthony Kennedy (Harvard), and David Souter (Harvard) we also see no educational institutional diversity. Even the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg received her law degree from Columbia Law School. This means out of the 120 Supreme Court Justices (17 Chief Justices and 113 Associate Justices) only 1 has come from an HBCU (less than one percent). It continues to mean that the intellectual views and societal values of the nation’s highest court are still shaped by a select (and small) group of institutions. In other words, it says to any HBCU and its alumni that you have absolutely no chance at the highest levels of institutional power and therefore the individuals who flow through the pipelines of African American institutions will be hampered unless they fit a narrative that assuages their agenda (see Kamala Harris v. Stacey Abrams as vice-president: Will the Backbones Reap the Benefits? – Kamala Harris, Stacey Abrams, Colorism & Claiming Biracials).
African American institutions continue to be belittled and diluted of their power and their ability to become empowered by both the liberal and conservative movements. The liberal movement continues to try and convince African America that assimilation and abandonment of African American institutions is for the best. That the energy of building empowered institutions is better used fighting our way into being a “happy” minority within other community’s institutions. Conservatives on the other hand simply seek to defund African American institutions leaving them incapable of functioning. In both instances while the methods are different the end game is the same – kill the support of African American institutions by the African American community and ultimately drive them to extinction because they will be viewed as not only irrelevant but a detriment to success.
Judge Jackson’s appointment is unequivocally important on the individual level. The trials that an African American woman is going to face whether she goes to Harvard or Howard are immense and her rise to this moment should not be understated. However, it would be disingenuous to not acknowledge what it says to the masses of African Americans that our institutions are still treated as “back of the bus” as it comes to garnering equitable access to the halls of power. It should also be highly disturbing to all Americans that essentially two institutions have control of the Supreme Court no matter what the person being appointed looks like. For African America though this is a continued conversation of how we empower our institutions and the pipelines of our ecosystem to create success as the rule for our people as opposed the outlier that comes when a people are dependent upon other’s institutions. That dependency reinforces the notion that anything other than Black is the pathway to success. Without examining this dynamic and challenging the institutional status quo, it spells out a cancer to African American families, communities, and our other institutions that serve our social, economic, and political interest and ultimately our demise.