Column: The unsubtle racism of questioning Ketanji Brown Jackson’s qualifications

Charles Schumer meets with Ketanji Brown Jackson
Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer meets with President Biden’s Supreme Court nominee, Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, on Wednesday.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

The wave of affirmative action that began with Executive Order 10925 — President Kennedy’s attempt to address racial discrimination among federal contractors — did not fail by handing jobs to unqualified Black people rather than qualified white people, as critics love to claim.

The effort failed on a more fundamental level, because it did not manage to shake the widespread assumption in American culture that white men did not benefit from their gender or the color of their skin, and thus earned their lot in life based solely on merit.

Opinion Columnist

LZ Granderson

LZ Granderson writes about culture, politics, sports and navigating life in America.

It’s worth keeping in mind that Kennedy signed the executive order in March 1961. This was two years before he had to deploy the National Guard to the University of Alabama to enable the school’s first Black students to enroll, and years before the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibited discrimination in access to public facilities. In other words, the system in place was designed to support the upward mobility of white Americans while actively limiting the opportunities of people of color.


Meanwhile affirmative action was characterized as some sort of handout, becoming ground zero for white grievances despite the fact whiteness was more of a head start to success than an impediment. This is where we find Fox News’ Tucker Carlson, who on the heels of rooting for Russia is now curious about the LSAT scores of Ketanji Brown Jackson, President Biden’s pick to replace Justice Stephen G. Breyer. If confirmed, Jackson would become the first Black woman to be a part of the land’s highest court.

Openly questioning the qualifications of Jackson, who is currently a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, is par for the course for Carlson. As is mocking Jackson’s name, an “othering” dog whistle that he also blew in the direction of Kamala Harris, the first woman of color to be elected vice president, back in 2020. It’s akin to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell saying, “If you look at the statistics, African American voters are voting in just as high a percentage as Americans.”

Comments like Carlson’s and McConnell’s hint at a very specific picture of who belongs where. When the TV host demands to see the qualifications of Jackson, who currently serves on the Harvard Board of Overseers, what he is really asking is “how did you get in here?”

As the New York Times’ Charles Blow has pointed out, James Francis Byrnes dropped out of school at 14 and never went to college or law school, and yet President Franklin D. Roosevelt put him on the Supreme Court.

Before President Trump nominated her to the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in 2017, Amy Coney Barrett had never been a judge, an attorney general or even a defense lawyer. Five years later, she’s on the Supreme Court.

McConnell, who ushered Barrett’s conspicuously hurried confirmation process, issued a statement this time: “The Senate must conduct a rigorous, exhaustive review of Judge Jackson’s nomination as befits a lifetime appointment to our highest Court.” Later he added: “I look forward to carefully reviewing Judge Jackson’s nomination during the vigorous and thorough Senate process that the American people deserve.” I guess the American people didn’t deserve any of that with Barrett.


But again, this isn’t about one or two individuals or even the actions of one or two administrations. This is about a worldview that considers people of color inherently less fit for the job, whatever the job is, than their white counterparts. With that mindset, efforts to diversify an environment are often met with cynicism, as if quality must be sacrificed in order to diversify. In reality, quality is being sacrificed when an organization is not tapping into all talent pools. That has been the issue in government, in corporate America, even in the hiring of NFL coaches.

None of this is to suggest that white candidates for a job didn’t work hard, aren’t qualified or haven’t suffered hardships along the way. It’s only a historical observation: White skin has not been an impediment to American success.

Of the 115 Supreme Court justices, all but seven have been white men. You ever wonder what their LSAT scores were, or did you just assume they were qualified for the job?

Instead of engaging about the ideology of a Supreme Court nominee, Carlson is wondering how Jackson got into the room in the first place. It’s no mystery: She’s well-qualified.

But hey, while we’re talking about the systems that have propped up white men since Colonial days, perhaps there’s another question Carlson should be asking: How did all those white guys get the job?