Like a 30-day white supremacy challenge, the Senate rushed the Supreme Court confirmation—and swearing-in—of Amy Coney Barrett through the dark recesses of the halls of power, once again putting party politics over the people.
While some may celebrate the Trump nominee becoming only the fifth woman to sit on the Supreme Court, for those who believe in freedom and justice, there is no cause for jubilation. Barrett’s positions on everything from reproductive rights to hostile work environments to climate change tell us that. And her confirmation coming just months after the centennial anniversary of all white women getting the right to vote, while the majority of Black women could not, is a fitting reminder that flat representation alone is not enough and can be dangerous.
What this process has exposed, though, is what conservatives manage to get done when motivated by acquiring and hoarding power while stripping vulnerable citizens of their rights. There is a reason why this same urgent need to govern does not exist in response to the millions across the country still struggling as the COVID-19 pandemic rages on, but that is just the top of the Blue Lives Matter flagpole.
People envisioning the harm stemming from Barrett’s appointment—such as the dismantling of Roe v. Wade or the Affordable Care Act—fail to appreciate the ways in which state governments erode opportunities and liberty for millions of Americans, many of whom are disproportionately Black and brown.
Still, that does not mitigate the inherent danger of Barrett’s confirmation, nor does it excuse her glaring mediocrity.
A Black Woman Could Never
For many Black women there is no joy in Barrett’s confirmation. Her lack of litigation and judicial experience pales in comparison to her new colleague Sonia Sotomayor, who had over 10 years of experience as a federal appellate judge and many more years experience as a litigator. But that is the nature of white mediocrity.
As murmurs grow about whether there is room for a Black woman to be appointed to the highest court in the land, one thing remains clear: a Black woman could never have made it through this process with a resume like Barrett’s. Despite her accomplishments and experience, a Black woman nominee still could be found wanting. Even the slightest deviation from conventionally accepted thought or politics would not be permitted. She couldn’t have a single hair out of place and would need to be ten times better than all the rest.
There is no need to imagine how a Senate body would treat a Black woman. In 1993, former President Bill Clinton nominated civil rights attorney Lani Guinier for the post of Assistant Attorney General of Civil Rights. Pressure from Republicans and some Democrats led Clinton to withdraw Guinier’s nomination. A highly qualified attorney in her field who challenged the status quo, Guinier was deemed unsuitable for service in such a high office because she offended the sensibilities of those in power.
Two years earlier, during Clarence Thomas’ confirmation process, the Senate Judicial committee showed Anita Hill little deference or concern when she was subpoenaed to provide testimony concerning allegations of sexual harassment. Both women were thrown under the bus by those who requested their presence in the process, because Black women are expendable and not to be protected.
So, no, this is not the moment for mealy mouthed overtures about Barrett’s confirmation as an advancement for women. Focusing on being apolitical and adhering to traditional standards of decorum and respectability is a threat to equity and justice. Claiming to be apolitical in this moment is itself a political act.
Crystal Good, an Affrilachian poet and performer who testified at Barrett’s confirmation hearing, shared with ESSENCE the depths of her experience as a teenager in a state that mandated parental consent for an abortion. Lacking trusted adult advocates, the artist sought out a judicial bypass to circumvent the parental consent required by law.
She understands that Barrett’s power is not in service to her, her family, nor her community.
“In this one particular meme [Barrett’s] holding up her note card, and it says that a woman in powerful positions isn’t inherently feminist, especially when they use their power to harm more marginalized women,” Good said. That one meme summed up for Good a lifetime of experience. “These systems are being used against us.”
If the Systems are Against Us, Who Can be for Us?
Systems working against oppressed peoples is the way of the United States. The history of the Supreme Court—and the institutions that make up the central hub of the American political system—were founded on white supremacy, misogyny, genocide, and several other forms of oppression. So, Barrett’s confirmation is not shocking. The failure of Democrats to mount a meaningful effort in opposition is disappointing but not surprising.
The current moment demands more of those people committed to equity and justice, more than any other moment in our lifetime. And how we show up or how we respond matters for our lives and the lives of everyone around us. Early on in the pandemic, Mia Birdsong released a book How We Show Up: Reclaiming Family, Friendship, and Community. The book is a collective reimagining as told by Birdsong about how we exist in relationships and community with each other. It pushes readers to imagine new ways of relating to the people around them. Moving forward from this moment will require stepping outside of our bounds of comfort and reimagining who our people are and what we are willing to put on the line to show up for them.
Make no mistake, the Barrett confirmation and solidifying of the Court’s rightward lurch is deeply disconcerting. But these institutions have never been for us. Nothing Black people have ever received in this country, whether in terms of a favorable decision or legislation, has been handed to us. It has been paid for in blood and sweat and the debt owed to our predecessors is accruing interest every day.
It is in the history of her Affrilachian predecessors where Good finds purpose and strength in this moment. Always representing her home state of West Virginia and the precious legacy of Black people in the mountain state, Good says this is where history comes in. Reflecting on the legacy of Carter G. Woodson, she says, “And that’s what our ancestors taught us…history has a lot to offer us of how we survive and how we feel in these moments.”
Nothing Black people have ever received in this country, whether in terms of a favorable decision or legislation, has been handed to us.
Karissa Lewis and Kayla Reed, leading organizers within the Movement for Black Lives, recently wrote about the power in Black people collectively reimagining what freedom looks like. And as we sit on the cusp of a new chapter in the American political experiment, there are a lot of possibilities. Moving from merely surviving under the current system to thriving in a future collectively envisioned requires shedding of comfort and abandoning any pretense of good faith from those seeking to undo our very existence.
The rushed confirmation of Justice Amy Coney Barrett by conservative politicians with not even a passing acquaintance with honor is just more evidence of that truth.