Can I succeed in this line of work? Are there people who are like me at this place? Those are apparently two questions most of us ask of ourselves from school age to later years, at least subconsciously, as we make decisions on our career and other choices. I have been contemplating these questions I heard at a conference on education, as the US Senate has been deliberating over the appointment of Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson to the Supreme Court.
No one wants to fail purposely in whatever they undertake, so the first question makes immediate sense, may it pertain to one’s profession or a mere hobby for enjoyment. What does “like me” mean in the second question? It could mean any number of things from gender, ethnicity, or race to culture, geographical region, or even political persuasion depending how a person identifies. Of interest to this piece are people for whom opportunities have been limited because of historical prejudices.
Justice Jackson has been confirmed to the Supreme Court with a bipartisan backing. She is among the most qualified nominees to the Court. Jackson perhaps never had questions about her abilities and aspirations, at least in part, because her father, a lawyer, was a ready role model. Her mother was a high school principal. Now she will be a role model to many who aspire to be a Justice — especially many Black girls.
Justice Jackson was confirmed to the Supreme Court by a Senate with no Black women, and thankfully, the tie-breaking vote of the presiding officer of the Senate and Vice President Kamala Harris was not necessary. President Biden deserves credit for choosing Jackson and Harris.
Why is Jackson the first Black woman nominated to the highest court? Because Supreme Court nominees often come from Federal Appellate Courts and with degrees from Law Schools where there are few Black women. Getting there requires nomination and confirmation by people unlike them. The process is similar for sought-after positions in the government, academia, and the industry. Far too often, skin color and gender have been disqualifying, though that may be changing ever so slowly.
Justice Jackson is a trailblazer and all she needed was an opportunity. It gets lonely for anyone and everyone near the top. But for those typically underrepresented in places of power, prestige, and wealth, it gets lonely a lot earlier and a lot further from the top, and getting a foot on that ladder is difficult, let alone climb. That is the societal challenge we have to overcome.
I was listening to a presentation by a young Black woman at a conference who told us how she got her dream job at a top computing technology company on the west coast only to find herself isolated and alone at her workplace. She knew she could succeed there, and she went there though there were not others like her. She left. That a team unlike her gave her an opportunity is good. However, unless places create the social structure and environment to welcome and sustain the “unlike”, we will be left celebrating an occasional success story like that of Justice Jackson.
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A bit about me.
With the Masters golf tournament in progress, I cannot resist this quip. Some of us sometimes go ahead, even when the answers to the central questions are obviously in the negative. Otherwise, why would I have started playing golf?
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