Jurisprudence

Ketanji Brown Jackson and the Politics of Black Hair

Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson is sworn in to testify at her U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing on her nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson is sworn in to testify at her U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing on her nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court. REUTERS/Evelyn Hockstein

On Thursday, Ketanji Brown Jackson became the first Black woman to be confirmed to the Supreme Court.

Her confirmation has widely been hailed as a historic first, a sign, as Sen. Chuck Schumer put it this week, that “the long march of our democracy is towards greater opportunity and representation for all.” No doubt, in a representative democracy, representation matters. For most of the court’s 233-year history, white men have predominantly occupied the bench.

Jackson’s inclusion, as a Black woman, mother, former public defender, and product of a public high school education, is long overdue.

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Many nods to the historic nature of her inclusion have focused on the visual significance of having a Black woman on the bench. “Untold millions of kids will open textbooks and see pictures of Justice Jackson and understand, in a new way, what it means to move towards a more Perfect Union,” Schumer said on Tuesday. In an impassioned speech during Jackson’s confirmation hearing, Sen. Cory Booker, moved to tears, spoke about the kinship often engendered between Black people in predominantly white spaces. “It’s hard for me not to look at you and not see my mom, not to see my cousins,” he said. ​​“Nobody is going to steal that joy.”

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The notion that kids will “see pictures” of Jackson in a textbook—or learn that she looks like Booker’s mom—has been cold comfort for me at a time when the court’s legitimacy has been eroded by a deeply political and extremely conservative agenda. Jackson’s pictures, undoubtedly, will accompany text explaining how in the span of a few short years the court dismantled the administrative state, gutted voting rights protections, and most likely, catapulted women backwards in time by overturning Roe v. Wade. I have no doubts that Jackson will make a stellar contribution to the court because of her jurisprudence, rigor, and intellect, but the sad reality is that her confirmation, her inclusion, her representation alone, does not shift the court’s balance of power.

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That “more Perfect Union” is still far off.

Still, I think the senators are onto something. Jackson’s ascension to the nation’s highest court is a rejection of the idea that there is no place for women with dark skin and tightly coiled hair in halls of power. That her skin is brown and that she wears her hair in shoulder-length sisterlocks matters. This is not simply an aesthetic argument: Generations of Black women have been taught that ascension and success requires conformity to white standards of beauty. We have been told our path might be eased by straight hair and light skin.

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The message here has been very grim: access and opportunity depends, too often, on the denigration and erasure of Blackness. Of course, the inherent violence of this logic is that Black people can never escape our own skin.

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Just a few decades ago, an entire political movement was formed in rejection of the idea that Blackness was something to be escaped or softened. The Black Power movement of the 1960s asserted that Black skin, Black hair, Black art, Black features—Blackness—is beautiful.

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Black hair was the most obvious battleground, giving rise to the first wave of a natural hair movement. Perhaps we are seeing that again. “Natural black hair,” as Tiya Miles, the Michael Garvey Professor of History and Radcliffe Alumnae Professor at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, wrote for the New York Times, in 2018, about the recent resurgence of natural Black hairstyles, “is again a sign of political intention, visually cuing a culture of resistance that asserts the value of difference, of conviction in the face of adversity, of the intrinsic worth of all human beings.”

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But decades later, this battle for the right to be Black and wear our hair the way it naturally grows out of our head is still being waged. Just last month, the story of a young Black student in Texas being barred from walking across the stage at graduation because he would not cut his dreadlocks made headlines. His story is just the latest example of a kind of senseless discrimination. Recall the Banana Republic employee who was told by a manager that her braids were “too urban and unkempt” for the store’s image. Or the heartbreaking video of a young Black wrestler who was forced to cut his dreadlocks before a match. Or the time the radio host Don Imus called members of the Rutgers basketball team “nappy headed hos.”

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Even the U.S Military has perpetuated this kind of discrimination. For years, the military’s grooming codes banned or severely limited the wearing of “hairstyles like cornrows, braids, twists and dreadlocks”—all hairstyles that are overwhelmingly worn by Black women.

“While the Army certainly isn’t the first to impose these kinds of prohibitions,” wrote Ayana Byrd and Lori L. Tharps, the authors of “Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America,” in an op-ed about the police for the New York Times, “ it may be the most egregious example, considering that the 26,000 black women affected by AR 670-1 are willing to die for their country.”

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The Army has since amended its policy. The U.S. Air Force also followed suit. So have companies like UPS, allowing employees to wear braids, afros and other natural hair styles. Lawmakers in New York and California have passed legislation to prevent discrimination on the basis of hair in schools and in the workplace. In mid-March, the House passed the CROWN Act, which would “ban race-based hair discrimination in employment and against those participating in federally assisted programs, housing programs, and public accommodation.” More states are considering passing the same kind of legislation. (Similar bills are pending in Massachusetts, Kentucky, Maine and Missouri.) “Hair discrimination,” said the co-sponsor of the bill in Maine, Mattie Daughtrey, “is rooted in systemic racism by preventing students and employees from wearing styles such as locks, braids, Bantu knots and afros.”

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Will the confirmation of Jackson and her sisterlocks to the Supreme Court undo this pernicious and systemic pattern of racism? Of course not.

Protecting against systemic racism is a legislative and legal (and spiritual?) effort. But having a Black woman with natural hair on the highest court might also make a difference here. Consider that in 2016, the 11th United States Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a company’s right not to hire a Black person with dreadlocks. The court of appeals decided that the company’s policy of barring employment for people with dreadlocks was a “race–neutral grooming policy” because even though hairstyles are “culturally associated with race,” they are not “immutable physical characteristics.” Once again the message was loud and clear: Black people have to change themselves to fit in.

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How Jackson actually makes history as the first Black female on the Supreme Court remains to be seen. That the world will get to watch her doing it in real time is in itself a triumph. Republicans have tried hard to discount her accomplishments and tarnish her sterling reputation, but now confirmed, they will never be able to erase her Black visage from the public eye.

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So while I wait for Jackson to help usher in that “more Perfect Union,” I make peace with the fact that her presence alone serves as an enduring reminder that Black hair and Black people are not lesser or unprofessional or in need of changing. “Despite and perhaps because of a surge in white supremacist language in the United States, a wave of black cultural resistance is flooding the arts as well as the streets,” Miles wrote. “And with it, black hair in its natural state of sublime uprightness has returned as a symbol of political consciousness and visionary imagining.” As Jackson takes her seat, we can add the Supreme Court to that list.

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