Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, President Joe Biden’s Supreme Court pick, has repeatedly embraced champions of Critical Race Theory (CRT) in lectures and speeches while nodding to the progressive idea with the use of terms such as “microaggression.”
Biden, who pledged in late January to nominate a black woman to the Supreme Court, followed through by nominating Jackson a month later. Jackson sits on the D.C. Court of Appeals and will replace retiring Justice Stephen Breyer if confirmed by the Senate.
Jackson’s background includes a Harvard law degree, legal defense work for prisoners of Guantanamo Bay, and a stint leading the U.S. Sentencing Commission. Jackson was previously confirmed by the Senate for her spot on the D.C. Court of Appeals by a vote of 53-44 on June 14, 2021.
Jackson won confirmation last year with the support of Democrats and Republican Sens. Susan Collins of Maine, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska. Republicans, including Graham, expressed reservations about Jackson’s judicial philosophy at the time, and those reservations have only grown. Graham blasted Jackson’s nomination in February as a pick of the “radical Left,” though he has not yet said which way he intends to vote.
A review of a handful of Jackson’s lectures and speeches from the past seven years shows that the nominee has a strong appreciation for leading proponents of CRT, a progressive idea that holds in part: “racism is endemic to, rather than a deviation from, American norms,” legal scholar Kimberle Crenshaw, who coined the term, wrote in 1989. While Jackson has avoided openly championing CRT, she has complimented its advocates and suggested that the progressive theory informs her legal analysis.
In October 2021, Jackson moderated a Harvard Alumni Association webinar with university President Larry Bacow. Jackson, as questioner for the first part of the webinar, at one point focused the discussion on the topic of “Diversity, Equity, Inclusion & Belonging,” an outgrowth of CRT scholarship.
Jackson pressed Bacow on how the university “recruits and retains talented faculty of color[.]” Jackson asked about a decision regarding the halting of a “Latinx Studies” graduate course. The judge also claimed that “the growing inequality in wealth and access to education in the United States, and various systemic obstacles to social advancement and democratic ideals” is “of particular interest” to the audience.
In February 2020, Jackson spoke at the James E. Parsons Award Dinner for the Black Law Student’s Association at the University Of Chicago. During her speech, Jackson told students that “microaggressions … are real,” echoing sentiments she had given months earlier in an October 2019 keynote address at the Husch Blackwell Retreat. Jackson advised students:
I absolutely know and understand that you will face prejudice and other obstacles that other people in your environment do not have to endure. Life is not fair, and I totally get that the microaggressions that you are observing are real. The question I am encouraging you to think about is whether being confrontational will actually solve the problem, and even more important, whether it is worth your time! Having a thick skin means recognizing when you’re being disrespected, but also understanding that marshaling a response each time something happens is a big distraction that takes your mind and attention away from what really matters, which is doing the best job that you can possibly do so that you can rise to a level in which you will actually be able to address the kinds of issues that you’ve witnessed.
She supported her advice with a story from her own college experience. She said a fellow student hung a Confederate Flag outside his dorm room window, and that she lost valuable class and study time protesting for the university to force the student to remove it.
“I remember thinking how unfair it was to us that in addition to having to be victimized by the sentiments that that symbol expressed and by what we perceived to be the unacceptably lax response of the university, we were also missing classes, and could not just be regular students, focusing on the work we had to do, like the rest of our peers,” she said.
In January 2020, Jackson gave a lecture to the University of Michigan Law School as part of its Martin Luther King, Jr. Day celebration. In a speech on “Black Women Leaders In The Civil Rights Movement Era And Beyond,” Jackson said she took inspiration from one of the works of the late Derrick Bell, who is often touted as the godfather of CRT.
Bell’s 1993 book, “Faces At The Bottom Of The Well: The Permanence Of Racism,” was a fixture of Jackson’s childhood. The work is “a pioneering contribution to critical race theory scholarship, and it remains urgent and essential reading on the problem of racism in America.”
“My parents had this book on their coffee table for many years, and I remember staring at the image on the cover when I was growing up; I found it difficult to reconcile the image of the person, who seemed to be smiling, with the depressing message that the title and subtitle conveyed. I thought about this book cover again for the first time in forty years when I started preparing for this speech, because, before the civil rights gains of the 1960s, black women were the quintessential faces at the bottom of the well of American society, given their existence at the intersection of race and gender — both of which were highly disfavored characteristics,” Jackson said.
Jackson also credits the work of Bell’s widow, Janet Dewart Bell, another leading CRT advocate. Jackson said Dewart Bell first illuminated many of the “observations that I am presenting.” “I have drawn heavily from her excellent insights,” Jackson said.
During her lecture, Jackson also highlighted The New York Times’ “1619 Project” and its architect, “acclaimed investigative journalist” Nikole Hannah-Jones. The 1619 Project began as a series of essays, later repurposed into educational materials for K-12 students, that claimed the United States’ “true founding” took place in 1619 with the arrival of the first slave ship in the U.S. The “true founding” reference was removed after pushback and replaced with a description of the project that says:
The 1619 Project is an ongoing initiative from The New York Times Magazine that began in August 2019, the 400th anniversary of the beginning of American slavery. It aims to reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative.
Jackson said of the 1619 Project:
Hannah-Jones (who happens to be a black woman) explains that the men who drafted and enacted the Constitution founded this nation on certain ideals: freedom; equality; democracy. Yet, at the time they formulated these principles, the institution of slavery already existed in the colonies—ever since the year 1619, when 20-to-30 Africans who had been captured in their homeland arrived in the colonies by ship and were exchanged for goods. Jones highlights the irony of the situation even further when she notes that at the very moment that Thomas Jefferson penned the self-evident truths of the Declaration of Independence, a black relative—a slave—had been brought into his office to serve him. Thus, it is Jones’s provocative thesis that the America that was born in 1776 was not the perfect union that it purported to be, and that it is actually only through the hard work, struggles, and sacrifices of African Americans over the past two centuries that the United States has finally become the free nation that the Framers initially touted.
In 2015, Jackson lectured on federal prison sentencing guidelines, which she said are “interesting on an intellectual level” because of the nexus of topics that impact them, including CRT. Jackson said:
I also try to convince my students that sentencing is just plain interesting on an intellectual level, in part because it melds together myriad types of law – criminal law, of course, but also administrative law, constitutional law, critical race theory, negotiations, and to some extent, even contracts. And if that’s not enough to prove to them that sentencing is [sic] a subject is worth studying, I point out that sentencing policy implicates and intersects with various other intellectual disciplines as well, including philosophy, psychology, history, statistics, economics, and politics.