Despite the toxic partisan politics displayed during the confirmation hearings for Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson last month, her likely ascension to the US Supreme Court — as an eminently qualified jurist and the first African American woman justice — marks a profound and positive change in the nation’s history.
In 2022, we are closer than ever to the aspiration of equal protection promised in the US Constitution and our laws, even as race and gender inequities endure in many areas of American life.
This is a moment worthy of celebration. But it also invites reflection on how individual success relates to the ideal of opportunity for all.
It has taken over 230 years to reach this auspicious moment. Until 1967, when former President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed Thurgood Marshall to the Supreme Court, presidents only selected White men to serve as justices. And for hundreds of years, race and gender not only defined the court’s membership, but the court, in its decisions, also served as an instrument of discrimination against people of color and women.
The court once denied that any person of African descent could be a US citizen, upheld racial segregation, denied that the Constitution protected the voting rights of women and upheld a state’s right to deprive women of law licenses. (All of these rulings were eventually overturned.)
During her confirmation hearings, Jackson acknowledged the dramatic changes in our country over the past 60 years that facilitated her own ascent. Without the Civil Rights Act of 1964’s ban on race- and sex-based discrimination in education and employment, Jackson’s chances of attaining the sterling educational and legal credentials that helped prepare her for a US Supreme Court nomination would have been slim to none. Even with the Civil Rights Act in place, it took years of lawsuits and protests to pry open the doors of predominantly White universities and elite sectors of the legal profession for Black Americans.
But while there is certainly cause to celebrate the change that Jackson’s confirmation to the court symbolizes, that celebration is not enough. We must also question whether American institutions are doing what they must to ensure that all students — including the many people of color and young women and girls who will be inspired by Jackson’s ascent — have a real chance to achieve their full potential.
Sadly, our educational institutions still fail to nurture the talents of many American children. State-mandated racial segregation and sex discrimination are illegal today. But the likelihood of success in American K-12 and post-secondary schools still relies heavily on factors beyond an individual’s control — often correlated with race and gender in ways that reinforce the effects of past, then-lawful discrimination.
Where a child is born and grows up is a happenstance of birth. As the Harvard economist Raj Chetty has shown, a student’s zip code is strongly correlated with life chances. Highly racially segregated areas — as well those with high income inequality, poor schools, low social capital and low family stability — tend to have low upward mobility from one generation to the next.
Geography often directly determines access to high-quality schools with experienced teachers, college preparatory curricula and a wealth of co-curricular offerings, from STEM clubs to speech and debate teams. Jackson’s educational journey to Harvard started at precisely such a school; she was a star debater at Miami Palmetto Senior High School and graduated well-prepared for admission to a selective college and professional school, lucrative employment opportunities and career success.
The level of education of a child’s parents is another happenstance. Those born to parents with college degrees are much better positioned for success in K-12 school, and more likely to access and succeed at college. In fact, parents’ educational attainment is often identified as the most important factor predicting the educational achievement of students, and households headed by college-educated parents tend to provide greater economic, emotional and social stability. During her opening statement, Jackson recognized that her supportive parents, Johnny and Ellery Brown, both graduates of historically Black colleges and universities, propelled her success — including her ambition to attend law school.
Millions of children not born into such households often lack the social and emotional support and behavioral skills to thrive academically, and far too few American schools teach the competencies these students need to succeed.
The disadvantages visited upon students from families of modest means and without college-educated parents compound over time. Students from low-income households are greatly disfavored in the frenetic race for admission into elite colleges, a process that rewards students who grow up in wealthier zip codes and with engaged parents who can provide access to test prep and even educational consultants. And even these powerful advantages are not enough for some wealthy and well-connected parents, who seek admission to selective universities through so-called “side doors.”
Those students from modest backgrounds who do manage to attain admission to the nation’s highest educational echelon often face a deck stacked against them, as Harvard sociologist Anthony Jack has shown. To navigate unfamiliar norms and cultures and feel a sense of belonging inside and outside of college classrooms, these students need to address what I’ve termed the “mentoring gap,” by providing opportunities for interpersonal connection and community building. Jackson herself described feeling out of place at Harvard, recalling that it took the kindness of a stranger, a Black woman passerby who admonished her to “persevere,” to help her remain on course during a moment of self-doubt.
All these factors intersect to create persistent structural inequalities in our educational system and in society. We can do better — much better.
In this moment of transformation at the US Supreme Court, we should not only celebrate the achievement of one exceptionally accomplished Black woman. We must also work harder than ever to create a more equitable society — one that supports the development of high achievers from every background and every neighborhood in America.
Tomiko Brown-Nagin is dean of the Harvard Radcliffe Institute, Daniel P.S. Paul Professor of Constitutional Law at Harvard Law School and author of “Civil Rights Queen: Constance Baker Motley and the Struggle for Equality.” The views expressed in this commentary are her own.