First but not last: Black girls see themselves in court pick

Mar 20, 2022, 9:20 AM | Updated: Mar 21, 2022, 9:10 am

In 2013, as she watched President Barack Obama’s second inauguration, 7-year-old Veronica Bofah decided she wanted to be just like him. She would go to Harvard and one day be president, too.

Nine years later, the memories are fuzzy, but she remembers everyone around her pointing to Barack and Michelle Obama as the power couple of the moment, and how few Black leaders, especially Black women, she learned about in school.

“At that age, I didn’t see many influential Black figures who went to Ivy League or really elite schools,” Bofah said. “I like to put quotations around that because it’s very subjective, but that time period was when I started idolizing him. That’s what led me to want to become a role model to other young girls who like look like me.”

Now 17, Bofah has shifted her sights from the presidency to law school. The teenager from Charlotte, North Carolina, wants to represent vulnerable people like immigrants and children who are at a disadvantage when it comes to navigating the legal system. To see Ketanji Brown Jackson, a Black woman and former public defender, nominated to the Supreme Court, felt both empowering and affirming of her own path forward.

“Having someone who knows what it’s like to support clients who are disadvantaged in the system … I think that’s kind of what makes her unique,” Bofah said.

For Black girls, the possibility of Jackson being the first Black woman on the Supreme Court is a moment of promise, hope and the breaking of yet another barrier. But while the symbolism resonates deeply, many are hungry for deeper change that goes beyond just representation.

Rachel McBride, an 18-year-old high school senior in Atlanta, likened the moment more to a glass elevator than a glass ceiling — moving one level up, while keeping in mind the many more levels left to go.

“It’s great to be the first, but you never want to be the last,” McBride said. “One singular person can’t be the one to make change. It has to be followed up by more and more people that are willing to make change.”

When barriers are broken, McBride said, it is often followed by backlash or a feeling that marginalized communities should be satisfied with the symbolism. While Jackson would bring an invaluable perspective to the court, McBride said, it is not lost on her that the balance of the court would remain unchanged if Jackson were confirmed.

Already, some have tried to diminish Jackson’s nomination as affirmative action or discrimination against white people. Whether that strategy continues as her Senate hearing gets underway Monday is something that will be widely watched.

But those who say that are failing to see how unimpeachable Jackson’s accomplishments are, McBride said, from the judge’s Ivy League degree to her experience on the bench.

McBride said it reminded her of attending a summer camp for media studies at the University of Georgia a few years ago. She said she did twice the work of her classmates but was still accused of slacking off by the instructor.

“The really, really stressful thing about being Black, specifically being a Black woman, is that you have to be the best in order to get anywhere,” McBride said.

For Black girls, seeing someone like Jackson — the way she wears her hair, her darker complexion, having a name with African origins — fully embrace her Blackness and ascend to the top of the American judicial system is a reminder that they should not have to shrink themselves in order to succeed.

Breana Fowler, a 17-year-old high school senior in Charlotte who wants to become a lawyer, said her mother used to joke that she would become the first Black woman to be a Supreme Court justice. To see the moment at hand much sooner than either of them thought possible, with someone like Jackson in the role, remains surreal.

“She wears her hair loud and proud,” Fowler said. “Oftentimes, brown-skinned and dark-skinned girls are the ones that are ridiculed a lot about their intelligence, their looks. For her to be confident and for her to look like that and be a Supreme Court nominee, I think a lot of Black girls really resonated with that. I know I did.”

Black women are often told their natural hair is unprofessional, said Tamara Morgan, 18, an Atlanta high school senior. Their natural appearances are held against them, and used to take away from their qualifications, she said.

That’s why seeing Black women in leadership who embrace their identity means so much to Morgan. She said it’s like looking into a mirror and seeing herself and what’s possible.

“When I look at women like Stacey Abrams and Ms. Jackson, I just feel as though there’s room and there’s space for me in the world and a lot of other women that look just like us,” Morgan said. Democrat Abrams is making her second run for Georgia governor in 2022.

In her first public remarks after being nominated, Jackson alluded to the significance of the moment for young girls. If confirmed, she said, she hoped that her “life and career, my love of this country and the Constitution, and my commitment to upholding the rule of law and the sacred principles upon which this great nation was founded, will inspire future generations of Americans.”

For many girls, Jackson has already done that through her career and track record leading up to her nomination.

Sidney Griffin, a 16-year-old junior in Charlotte who has participated in youth advocacy campaigns including ones for diversity in school curriculum and tuition equity for students covered by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program said this moment drove her to think even bigger.

“She’s definitely inspiring me to continue to create change in my community,” she said. “But it also makes me wonder how much more can I do to impact not just Charlotte, but North Carolina and I mean, America? She is inspiring little girls everywhere and teenagers like myself to continue to fight for change and to diversify the people that are in power who get to make these decisions that will influence us today and for generations to come.”

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Ma, based in Charlotte, North Carolina, writes about education and equity for AP’s Race and Ethnicity team. Follow her on Twitter: https://www.twitter.com/anniema15

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The Associated Press’ reporting around issues of race and ethnicity is supported in part by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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First but not last: Black girls see themselves in court pick