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Cory Booker to Ketanji Brown Jackson: ‘The United States of America will be better because of you’

Why Senator Cory Booker’s words of love mattered at the Senate Supreme Court hearing

A tear rolled down Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson's cheek as she testified during her Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing.Alex Brandon/Associated Press

“God got you.”

Black folk say these three words to one another often when the weight of racism gets to be too much and holding your head high becomes hard.

For three days, Ketanji Brown Jackson has sat with the Senate. One of the most qualified Supreme Court nominees ever, she’s clerked at every level of the federal courts, been a public defender, and been confirmed by the Senate three times for prior positions.

But this time around, the tone of the hearings was violent. There was an active agenda at play by Republican senators to portray Jackson as a pedophile sympathizer, a friend of terrorists, or otherwise a danger.

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Without warrant, they were interrogating Jackson. She’s being used and abused while they feign politeness and twist every answer she gave.

Senator Cory Booker was there. He felt the heavy in the air, the sting of the takedown.

After hours of harrowing accusations on day three of her hearings, Booker used his 20 allotted minutes to affirm Jackson instead of question her. It matters.

“Don’t worry my sister,” Booker told her Wednesday evening, using his time to uplift her. “Don’t worry. God has got you, and how do I know that? Because you’re here and I know what it’s taken for you to sit in that seat.”

"I know what it’s taken for you to sit in that seat," Senator Cory Booker said to Ketanji Brown Jackson during her confirmation hearings.Susan Walsh/Associated Press

Everything. It has taken every little bit of her mind, body, and spirit. When Black folk dare to be a first, it takes more than work. It requires the kind of sacrifice that leaves scars and no one prepares you for the pain of the way you will be rejected, disrespected, and demeaned because you are Black. And in the case of KBJ, Black and woman.

She was told Harvard was out of reach by her guidance counselor, much like Michelle Obama was told by hers that she was not Princeton material. Racism tries its best to steal your dreams and accuse you of being a thief when you make them come true.

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“You didn’t get here because of some left-wing agenda. You didn’t get here because of some dark money groups,” Booker said, admonishing the GOP’s demagoguery and disparagement during the hearings. “You got here how every Black woman in America has gotten anywhere. Like Ginger Rogers said, ‘I did everything Fred Astaire did, but backwards and in high heels.’ ”

Tears started to roll down her face. And mine. Much has been made of Jackson’s poise, her strength, her grace, her smarts. But so few have recognized her pain. Black women so often are relegated to being tough.

We are women who have to fight to be in every room and show up as ourselves. The House just last week passed the Crown Act, which would ban hair discrimination that disproportionately affects us.

Even when we are in the room, our mere existence is critiqued. Even when we win, we are made to feel less than, a la Jane Campion using her Critics’ Choice Award speech to falsely insist Venus and Serena didn’t go through what she did. And when we fall, there are people who are happy to let us disappear.

It starts early and it never stops.

In preschool, where Black girls make up only 20 percent of enrollment, they account for over half of out-of-school suspensions, according to the National Women’s Law Center.

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A third of the nearly 300,000 girls and women reported missing in America in 2020 were Black, according to the National Crime Information Center.

Black women and indigenous women are killed at rates higher than other groups of women, the CDC reports, and the reaction is silence. Much like the response to Brittney Griner’s detainment in Russia. Bring her home.

A Black girl’s blues don’t seem to be blues at all in this country. So it matters when you rise. It matters when you are seen and held the way Booker lifted Jackson on Wednesday.

To be defended, protected, and loved in a country that works overtime to hate you is essential.

Her mother, father, and daughters have had to endure watching her be belittled, despite her judgments being in line with most judges nationwide. We’re watching the way glass ceilings will cut you as you shatter them. Her family is there to shield her she while she aims to make history. They are living reminders of love. It’s necessary.

A hand-drawn note from her daughter, saying “You got this,” was in her chair on Tuesday.

“It’s hard not to look at you and not see my mom, not to see my cousins, one of them who had to come here and sit behind you. She had to have your back,” Booker told Jackson. “I see my ancestors and yours. Nobody is going to steal the joy. ... You have earned this spot. You are worthy. You are a great American.”

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“You have earned this spot. You are worthy. You are a great American.”

Booker evoked the words of Langston Hughes’ “Let America Be America Again” and the love so many marginalized groups show America even when it does not love us back.

O, yes,

I say it plain,

America never was America to me,

And yet I swear this oath —

America will be!

Booker is the only Black member of the Senate committee. He is one of only three Black senators ― and when he was elected in 2012, only the fourth popularly elected Black senator. He knows the isolating and hurtful toll of making space for everyone in rooms created for white men. Sometimes, we need a knowing glance, some loving kindness. On some days, it is a lifeline.

“Today, you are my star. You are my harbinger of hope,” he told her. “This country is getting better and better and better and when that final vote passes and you ascend onto the highest court of the land, I am going to rejoice and I am going to tell you right now the greatest country in the world, the United States of America, will be better because of you.”

A lifeline.

Jackson told the Senate about a hard day she had as a young Harvard student, wondering if she belonged.

“Can I make it in this environment,” she admitted asking herself. “And I was walking through the yard in the evening and a Black woman I did not know was passing me on the sidewalk and she looked at me and I guess she knew how I was feeling and she leaned over as we crossed and said, ‘persevere.’”

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This is what she tells young people — keep going. This is why Booker sought to build her up, to protect her joy. He wants her to hold on. Persevere, KBJ.

Please, persist.


Jeneé Osterheldt can be reached at jenee.osterheldt@globe.com and on Twitter @sincerelyjenee and on Instagram @abeautifulresistance.