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OPINION

The extra unseen talent of Biden’s Supreme Court nominee and all Black women in law

They are beyond qualified. They’ve had to be super-qualified their entire careers.

Candace Jackson-Akiwumi, nominated to be a US Appeals Court judge for the Seventh Circuit (right) and Ketanji Brown Jackson, nominated to be a US Appeals Court judge for the District of Columbia Circuit, are sworn in during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on pending judicial nominations, April 28, 2021, on Capitol Hill in Washington.Tom Williams/Associated Press

Though President Biden hasn’t yet named his first US Supreme Court pick, Republicans are already coalescing around a line of attack: They’re ready to declare her unqualified.

The basis? Well, the only thing they know for sure is that she will be a Black woman.

“I want a nominee who knows a law book from a J. Crew catalog,” said Senator John Kennedy of Louisiana, joining his fellow Republicans in saying the quiet part out loud.

The irony is that not only do all the women reportedly being considered for the nod have mile-long lists of credentials, but they also each have an extra unseen talent. They have all excelled in the legal profession despite the additional tax and labor required of them and every other Black woman in the field. They have become agile hurdlers of the invisible barriers placed before them every day of their professional lives.

They are beyond qualified. They’ve had to be super-qualified their entire careers.

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“You’re a lawyer?” They’ve been asked, ad nauseam, just as I was as an attorney. “You don’t look like a lawyer.”

I’ve written before about being mistaken as a criminal defendant at Suffolk Superior Court when I arrived to argue a civil case, and being asked to make copies before a deposition in my own law office. The list goes on.

Black women in law must perform work — actual mental and emotional work — that is not expected of our colleagues. This extra labor takes aim at our very dignity, but we must do it well and with a smile. The smallest mistake could not only harm our careers but also serve as justification for those who see us as mere affirmative action beneficiaries. We must do our jobs and continuously prove we deserve them.

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“It is the way that racism, sexism, all of the various -isms that come together impact their everyday lived experience,” said sociologist Tsedale M. Melaku, author of “You Don’t Look Like a Lawyer: Black Women and Systemic Gendered Racism.” “It’s not just the overt forms of racism, but the subtle everyday nuanced forms of racism that they have had to tackle.”

We already know that a multitude of factors, from poor investment in predominately Black schools to the racial wealth gap and disproportionate impact of student loan debt, put law school out of reach of too many Black girls. There is a reason that less than 2 percent of lawyers are Black women, and it has nothing to do with skill.

But the extra Black-woman labor starts in law school. I was once brushed off by a law professor when I requested permission to miss a day of class because of a moot court argument. I was competing in the final round of an appellate argument competition before a panel that included Supreme Court Justice David Souter. My team won, and Souter named me best oral advocate.

Later, the professor came to me and apologized for his earlier brusque dismissal. He said he hadn’t realized that I was actually competing. Of course he hadn’t. (Happily, today the dean of my alma mater is a Black woman, giving students there a firsthand example of what excellence in the field can and does look like).

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Even after we pass the bar, Caucasian-focused standards of appearance require us to flatten our curls or pull them back in sleek buns. Suits that can be purchased off the rack at reasonable prices are not often designed for women whose bodies are shaped like so many of ours, so we must get them altered or risk being told we look unprofessional.

We code-switch, learning to assimilate to the language and style of our coworkers to fit in with the culture of our workplaces. As a young lawyer, I always wore heels to court, to take up as much physical space as possible as I faced off against attorneys who were almost uniformly white and male. I was still usually asked if I was represented by counsel.

We learn to project strength because vulnerability would be seen as confirmation of others’ doubts about our qualifications or aptitude. But we can’t look too strong, mind you, and certainly not angry. Never angry. In doing our jobs we must also put everyone around us — other lawyers, court clerks, judges, and even our own clients — at ease.

It’s exhausting. It’s not the sole reason I decided to leave law practice. But it certainly didn’t make me want to stay.

So whoever emerges from the reported list of potential nominees — a list of federal and state court judges, law professors, civil rights litigators, law firm veterans, all women who have demonstrated excellence in their craft at every turn — will be quite familiar with what her opponents in the Senate’s right wing will throw her way.

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And though she will have every right to be outraged at the indignities she has already experienced even before being named, you will not see her erupt in an angry outburst at her Senate confirmation hearing as Justices Clarence Thomas and Brett Kavanaugh did at theirs. Though those men’s lack of control helped solidify support for them, Biden’s nominee will know that she doesn’t have that privilege.

But best believe she will stick the landing. Because she will have had lots of practice in being exceptional. She could not have gotten this far otherwise.


Kimberly Atkins Stohr is a columnist for the Globe and The Emancipator. She may be reached at kimberly.atkinsstohr@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @KimberlyEAtkins.