Judge Brown Jackson and America’s moment of racial reckoning

The hounding of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson by conservatives who say ‘race does not matter’ was a side effect of our current moment of racial reckoning.

Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson listens to opening statements during her confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee
Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson listens to opening statements during her confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, March 21, 2022, in Washington, DC [File: Mandel Ngan, Pool via AP]

Today, the United States is experiencing a new moment of racial reckoning. A rapidly diversifying population is demanding systemic equity and meaningful access to constitutional freedoms.

This transformation for the better is neither complete nor progressing without resistance. In an historic first, an African American woman, Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, has been nominated to the Supreme Court. Her nomination to the highest judicial body of the nation is rightfully seen as a product of the United States’ current moment of racial reckoning. Despite being well-qualified for the position, she has baselessly been accused of incompetence, faced heightened scrutiny and has needlessly been subjected to questions on Critical Race Theory – only because she is a Black woman.

Some within our nation, especially conservative politicians, however, still insist that moments of racial reckoning are a thing of the past and “race no longer matters in the US”.

Of course, regardless of what they may claim for political capital, as the racially charged hounding of Judge Jackson during her confirmation hearing once again laid bare for everyone to see, race does matter in the US – a lot.

Racial reckoning: An American tradition

As defined by Professor Edward Bonilla-Silva, race is “an organizing principle of social relationships that shapes the identity of individual actors at the micro level and shapes all spheres of social life at the macro level”.

The US has always been and still is a racialised social system in which “economic, political, social, and ideological levels are partially structured by the placement of actors in racial categories or races”.  Thus, in American society, different races experience positions of subordination and superordination. As I explain in The Racial Muslim: When Racism Quashes Religious Freedom, this racialisation creates a hierarchy within society and leads to systemic inequality.

Throughout American history, there have been several moments of racial reckoning in which groups suffering the harms of racialisation mobilised collectively to eliminate the hierarchy.

The abolition movement, the era of Reconstruction when African Americans were running for and winning elected office, the anti-lynching movement, and the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s are just a few examples of such moments when African American communities mobilised to resist legalised forms of social, political and economic oppression.

The Japanese American community too experienced their own moment of racial reckoning after mobilising to demand a public apology and reparations from the US government for their internment during World War II. Their multi-decade efforts led to Congress passing the Civil Liberties Act in 1988.

Likewise, the Mexican American community had their moment of racial reckoning in the 1960s and 70s. The United Farm Workers, co-founded by Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta, challenged the inhumane work conditions and low pay of Latino farmworkers by wealthy white men who controlled the farming industry on the West Coast.

With each moment of racial reckoning – such as the abolition of slavery and Jim Crow laws, legal desegregation of public schools, passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, and adoption of affirmative action policies – the US-made real progress towards achieving racial justice.

The twin sister of progress, however, is retrenchment.

Racial progress is never without white nativist backlash

Indeed, whenever US’s racialised communities took a step towards achieving racial justice, they faced a white nativist backlash.

After African American men were granted the right to vote and in turn won numerous elected offices in the American South, the states passed laws that required a poll tax, literacy test, that a voter’s grandfather had been a free man and other laws that made the constitutional right to vote meaningless in practice.

Similarly, after the 1964 Civil Rights Act dismantled racist Jim Crow laws, a white nativist backlash challenged affirmative action in courts, underfunded federal agencies tasked with enforcing civil rights laws, packed the courts with conservative white male judges, and defunded most social welfare programmes that were essential for the social mobility of racial minorities who had experienced intergenerational poverty due to racist laws and politics.

Our current moment of racial reckoning

After countless cyclical episodes of racial reckoning and nativist retrenchment, today US society is once again making a move towards racial justice.

After living through at least three decades of devastating “War on Drugs and Crime”, which resulted in the criminalisation and mass imprisonment of Black people, African American communities reached a tipping point.

After living through at least three decades of overt xenophobia and anti-immigrant prejudice, Latino communities reached a tipping point.

After living through two decades of unabashed Islamophobia and anti-Muslim racism under the guise of national security, Muslim communities reached a tipping point.

After living through many decades of homophobia and gender-based violence, members of the LGBTQ community reached a tipping point.

Racialisation inflicted different harms on each one of these communities, but their collective suffering eventually translated into a cross-racial resistance movement that seeks to dismantle inequitable systems as opposed to merely changing the hearts and minds of racist individuals.

As a result, our nation is now experiencing a new moment of racial reckoning in which a new generation of leaders from a wide range of racialised communities are working together to tear down the curtain hiding the systems of racial stratification that cause different groups to experience positions of subordination and superordination in society and develop different interests.

Of course, this historic moment of racial reckoning – like those before it – will not be without a backlash. Groups that benefit from the racialised hierarchy will act to keep it intact, and even argue that it no longer exists.

The hounding of Judge Jackson was part of this backlash, and we will undoubtedly see many more examples of it in the near future.

The US is once again taking a big step towards racial justice and this should be celebrated. But our people are still suffering from many economic, political and social disparities and systemic injustices related to race.

Until we eliminate them all, and this may take generations, race will continue to matter in the US, and moments of racial reckoning will remain an American tradition – whatever our conservative politicians may claim.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.