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The US’s first Black woman senator on what Ketanji Brown Jackson brings to the Supreme Court

Former Sen. Carol Moseley Braun describes the historic significance of this moment.

US Supreme Court nominee Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson testifies during her confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee March 22, in Washington, DC.
Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images
Li Zhou is a politics reporter at Vox, where she covers Congress and elections. Previously, she was a tech policy reporter at Politico and an editorial fellow at the Atlantic.

Editor’s note, June 30: This story was updated after Ketanji Brown Jackson was sworn in to office as an associate justice of the US Supreme Court.

For Carol Moseley Braun, the first Black woman elected to the Senate, much of what Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson experienced during her confirmation process for the Supreme Court felt all too familiar.

“There’s a word, and the word is called misogynoir,” she tells Vox. “And that word describes the double whammy that women of color have to face: You’re vulnerable on the issue of gender, and you’re vulnerable on the issue of race.”

Moseley Braun, who previously sat on the Judiciary Committee, emphasizes that Jackson brings a valuable new perspective to the court that’s simply missing at the moment. During her time in the Senate — which doesn’t currently have any Black women lawmakers — Moseley Braun experienced many of the same gaps.

“It’s a matter of people in their ignorance not recognizing racism when they see it, not recognizing misogyny when they see it,” she said.

Jackson — who has been a federal district court judge, appeals court judge, and public defender — made history when she was sworn in to the Supreme Court on Thursday. The Senate previously voted 53-47 in favor of her nomination, making Jackson the first Black woman to become a Supreme Court justice.

This past April, Moseley Braun sat down with Vox to discuss the significance of this moment and the need for more representation on the federal bench and in Congress.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Li Zhou

How would you describe the significance of Jackson’s confirmation to the Supreme Court?

Carol Moseley Braun

I’m excited, because the fact is that we’ve never had a [Black woman] on the Supreme Court, as you know, in all these years since 1789. And so she’s the first, of more than a hundred Supreme Court justices. She’s breaking new ground.

And it matters greatly because, quite frankly, the reason I ran for the Senate was because Thurgood Marshall and the Warren Court had changed the course of my life. They got rid of segregation, so I was able to get a decent education and I didn’t have to sit at the back of the bus. I wasn’t denied service because of my color. And so, you know, [the Supreme Court] may make a huge difference in the way this country develops. And so her point of view and her perspective and her life experiences will give the Supreme Court a great deal of new information that they don’t right now have. And it’s going to be very, very important and significant.

I don’t think she’s going to hold back in terms of trying to influence her other colleagues on the Court.

Li Zhou

Can you talk about what the pressure is like to be “the first,” as someone who was the first Black woman elected to the Senate?

Carol Moseley Braun

The fact is that when you’re the first, you get special burdens, and people expect you to not only excel but to do it in a way that fits with all their different cultural expectations.

That’s very difficult. But if you followed her during the confirmation hearings, she has such grace and such aplomb and such diplomacy. She really is a role model. I mean, I sat there and watched her and was in awe because frankly, I would have slapped some of those guys. I have a much shorter fuse than she does. To sit there and be composed and be judicial, all that while they ask, I mean, ridiculous questions. And they were really mean to her — and this is not new.

This started with Robert Bork, frankly. And from that time on, it’s been a matter of “gotcha.” And a matter of, you know, treat nominees like they’re less than human. And the fact that the Republicans took the bait and went and did that, I think is just reprehensible.

Li Zhou

What was your overall reaction to how lawmakers treated Jackson at the hearings?

Carol Moseley Braun

To suggest that she was somehow less than qualified, less than competent, when, you know, most of them couldn’t even polish your boots. But the fact of the matter is, she is eminently qualified. Everybody recognizes that. And they’ve got no place to go in terms of the qualifications game.

But, again, that harkens back to some real antique racism that makes Black people into being less intelligent and less capable and less competent than anybody else. And so that’s where they were trying to go, but it didn’t work. It didn’t stand with the harsh light of reality and her record. She’s had a tremendous record that goes back years. And she’s ruled on so many different iterations of the different questions that our country faces that there was nothing they could do with her.

Li Zhou

What did you make of the misleading questions that people were asking suggesting Jackson was soft on crime, unusually lax on child porn sentencing, and about critical race theory?

Carol Moseley Braun

Again, it’s another harkening back to trying to play the race card. That’s what was going on.

What surprises me is that not more people have called it out for what it was. It’s just straight-up unvarnished racism.

Quite frankly, the whole thing on “soft on crime.” It’s like, why would they make Democrats into being soft on crime? It’s like we’re supposed to be — I guess because she’s Black, she’s softer on crime and not patriotic. Why would you go there?

That’s one of the older, racist tropes that Black people have had to contend with, the assumption that somehow there’s this criminality in our community that doesn’t exist anywhere else, which is insane and disproved by the facts.

Li Zhou

How did Jackson’s confirmation hearing compare to others that you sat on when you were on the Judiciary Committee?

Carol Moseley Braun

Well, you know, it was much harder. They did not come after Ruth Bader Ginsburg like that, or Stephen Breyer like that. Again, because she’s Black and a Black woman, they were able to reach for the most stale, outmoded, racist tropes to try to trip her up. And that’s what they were trying to do. I don’t think it worked.

There’s a word, and the word is called misogynoir. And that word describes the double whammy that women of color have to face: You’re vulnerable on the issue of gender, and you’re vulnerable on the issue of race. And when you put those two together, it can be a very toxic trap. And she was able to navigate all the ins and outs in a way that left her unscathed. And so she made me very, very proud watching her.

Li Zhou

When it comes to legislation, Democrats have struggled to deliver things like voting rights and police reform. What message do you see Judge Jackson’s nomination sending to Black voters about the Democratic Party?

Carol Moseley Braun

Well, I think it’s a very positive message.

This was one of the issues, at least in the Black female community, that I heard more than anything else was, you know, [Barack Obama] didn’t nominate a Black woman.

Joe Biden may have redeemed the Democratic Party with this nomination because he showed that he’s not afraid to take on the right wing and the Donald Trump party.

Li Zhou

What perspectives are missing in the Senate, which currently doesn’t have any Black women lawmakers?

Carol Moseley Braun

The whole idea of a democracy is that you bring together different perspectives, that it’s a government by the people, of the people. And if you don’t have Black people in these legislative bodies, on the Supreme Court, what you miss out on is the perspective and life experiences of a particular group of Americans, people who have been through it with this country.

I just got off the phone with the World War I Commission, trying to build a memorial to the Doughboys. We had 350,000 Black soldiers fighting to make the world safe for democracy. And when they came home, they would get lynched. So the point is that Black people have contributed in every possible way to this country and ought to have a voice in making decisions about its direction.

That we don’t have any Black women in the Senate means that those perspectives are absent in terms of its decision-making and policy and debates. When I think back, I mean, the Confederate flag had this renewable patent that passed as a matter of routine until I got to the Senate. And when I got there, I said, “Oh, guys, you can’t do this. This is offensive. And this is why.” It turned out I wound up winning and defeating the patent on the Confederate flag, on something that nobody had even noticed before. And that’s the value.

It’s not a matter of people actively trying to be racist. It’s a matter of people in their ignorance, not recognizing racism when they see it, not recognizing misogyny when they see it.

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