A Black Woman on the Supreme Court

By Emiene Wright

There have been 131 justices appointed to the Supreme Court. As far as they have identified themselves, two have been Black men, four have been women, including a Latina woman. But there has never been a Black woman on the Supreme Court, though many are qualified to sit at this seat of power.

“So how is it that the most engaged voting demographic, that of Black women, is still underrepresented,” Kim Tignor, executive director at Institute for Intellectual Property & Social Justice, asked. “The intersection of sexism and racism hits us harder. Black women are masters of seeing whose voices are marginalized or silenced and our exclusion has made us masters of inclusion. That’s what’s needed on the court.”

Tignor is part of She Will Rise, a national coalition of activists and educators aiming to get a Black woman nominated and appointed to the nation’s highest court. The death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg sent a shockwave of urgency throughout the campaign, which held a virtual kick-off Sept. 21 with a rousing discussion on why it is not only right, but necessary at this time. The event was broadcast on YouTube and Facebook.

Speakers included Tignor; Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and creator of the 1619 Project Nikole Hannah-Jones; and Donna Hylton, an advocate for women and girls impacted by intersectional trauma in the justice system; as well as author and culture commentator Demetria Lucas.

Bringing Balance Back to the Court

Tignor set the context for the campaign with a few grim facts. “The judiciary is the final check and balance of the three branches of government, and Donald Trump is determined to hold it hostage,” she said.

Conservatives have successfully deployed a years-long strategy to stack the courts with right-wing, Constitutional constructionist judges. First, they staunchly refused to allow President Barack Obama to appoint new judges, leaving 110 judicial vacancies by the time he left office. Then they changed the nomination rules and traditions to appoint a herd of fanatical conservatives to lower and appeals courts. In their haste, they didn’t even provide sufficient time for the American Bar Association to determine whether Trump’s nominees were qualified and held hearings for judges when the Senate was not even in session. The courts are now stacked with more than 200 Trump appointees, and a Supreme Court nominee is the grand prize.

Historically, so much of Black progress in this country has come through the courts. So younger justices such as Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, appointed for life, could sit 30 or 40 years, affecting generations of law. At stake are our rights to quality health care, environmental protections, safety from police brutality, reproductive autonomy and freedom from voter suppression.

“The courts have final say on which of these rights remain,” Tignor reminded attendees.

Donna Hylton was sentenced 25 years to life and granted parole after serving 27 years. The author and activist shared that the rate of incarceration for Black and brown women has grown 750 percent in the past 25 years.

Yet, “the image and exploitation of Black women have been left out of documentaries and books on disparities in sentences and police brutality, guaranteeing their continued oppression through systematic racism.”

“The impact of Supreme Court decisions has never been more critical to Black women,” Hylton said. “We need empathetic Black women at every judicial level. A Black woman must be nominated and confirmed if we are to have true racial reckoning in America.”

In recent years especially, Black women have been on the forefront of saving American democracy, often delivering close elections by voting progressively en masse. Black women voted against Trump at 97 percent, which is within the margin of error. More than any other group, Black women vote in favor of community and against policies that hurt other people. And as the most educated group, with a high level of civic participation and high numbers of qualified potential picks, how is it possible that not one Black woman has been confirmed?

The situation is “not shocking but it is unacceptable,” said Nikole Hannah-Jones. “Black women sit at the intersection of all oppressions, and are the most marginalized, facing race and gender discrimination.” Because of that, she added, “We typically see the Constitution as an expansive document to protect rights, not shrink them.”

She Will Rise is not operating solely on identity politics either, as it is possible Trump could appoint a Black woman who could be as damaging to Black interests as Justice Clarence Thomas.

“We’re past the period of tokenism,”Hannah-Jones said. Still, “you can’t have an institution that is reflective of democracy if it’s not reflective of demographics.”

She Will Rise campaign noted that Black women are needed at every level of justice, including the county and state level, as well as federal judges and on the Supreme Court. And while some people will say it’s racist to demand that a Black woman be appointed, they never questioned the 231 years without one. Representation matters.

Want to get involved? Go to www.sistascotus.org, sign the petition, follow on social, and share on your social media platforms.

The Crisis magazine is a quarterly journal of politics, culture, civil rights and history that seeks to educate and challenge its readers about issues facing African-Americans and other communities of color.

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