'Clair Huxtable was my guiding light': How Ketanji Brown Jackson will inspire a generation
I’m guessing that more than one Black girl looked at Judge Jackson on her iPhone screen the same way I looked at Clair Huxtable on my television.
"You can’t be what you can't see." That quote, credited to education pioneer Marian Wright Edelman, is often used to inspire women to enter professions that they have historically been excluded from, including science, technology, engineering and math.
Encouraging diversity by improving the representation of historically excluded groups, however, is critically important in other fields as well, including mine: the practice of law.
Growing up in northwest Washington, D.C., in the early 1980s, not many people in my neighborhood attended college, let alone on their way to becoming doctors, lawyers or teachers. Many of my friends and peers were just happy to make it to their next birthday.
TV shows revealed possibilities
No one in my immediate family graduated from college, so higher education wasn’t dinner table conversation, which is why TV programs such as "The Cosby Show" and "A Different World" were transformative for me, as were programs like Howard University’s Health S.M.A.R.T. and D.C.’s Upward Bound. If Clair Huxtable could become a lawyer, then so could I.
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Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, who will soon become the first Black woman on the U.S. Supreme Court, is Clair Huxtable for new generations of young people. With a bipartisan vote Thursday, the Senate confirmed Jackson's nomination.
Representation matters to young people trying to decide what career or education they should pursue. With "A Different World" characters Kim Reese and Freddie Brooks in mind, I decided that I wanted to attend college. And when I decided more than a decade ago to apply to law school, Clair Huxtable was my guiding light.
Law school lacked diversity
Yet when I entered Elon Law School in North Carolina, I was dismayed at the lack of representation. Only two Black law professors were on the faculty and fewer than 10 Black students were in my class. Undeterred, I threw myself into my studies and worked hard, secretly aspiring to be the first Black woman on the Supreme Court. But it is hard to maintain a dream when “you can’t be what you can’t see.”
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Jackson is part of the 4.7% of Black lawyers in the United States. She is also part of an even smaller sisterhood of Black women who serve as federal judges. Her ascent to the Supreme Court is monumental and represents so much to current and future lawyers as well as the public. It opens the field of vision for what’s possible for Black girls and women as well as other members of historically excluded groups.
Jackson represents the lofty idea embedded in our Constitution that all people should be reflected in the composition of the government, including the Supreme Court, which was exclusively white from 1789 to 1967 and all male until 1981.
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To be clear, Jackson’s nomination isn’t noteworthy only because of her race and gender – it is more noteworthy because of them. She is a brilliant attorney with impressive academic credentials and a strong judicial record, and she is highly respected by other jurists, including Justice Stephen Breyer, whose seat she will fill if confirmed.
Nomination brought joy
In a country where Black people – and especially Black women – have been attacked and criticized for our hair, our bodies and our ambition, it was a joy to see Jackson, brown-skinned and brilliant, share the stage with President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris as she accepted her nomination.
And I’m guessing that more than one Black girl looked at Judge Jackson on her iPhone screen – the same way I once looked at Clair Huxtable on my floor model television – and said, “I want to be a judge just like Ketanji Brown Jackson.” It’s the representation for me.
Tiffany Atkins is an assistant professor of law at Elon University School of Law in North Carolina. Follow her on Twitter: @ProfessorAtkins