At 2.54pm on the second day of Ketanji Brown Jackson’s confirmation hearings that will determine whether she takes a seat on the US supreme court, the solemn proceedings took a nosedive into farce.
Ted Cruz, the Republican senator from Texas, turned theatrically to an outsized blow-up of a children’s book, Antiracist Baby by Ibram X Kendi. Pointing to a cartoon from its pages of an infant in diapers taking their first walk, he asked Jackson: “Do you agree with this book… that babies are racist?”
“Senator,” Jackson began with a sigh. And then she paused for seven full seconds, which in the august setting of the Senate judiciary committee hearing felt like a year.
For the one and only time in the 13 hours of questioning that Jackson endured that day, the nominee appeared flummoxed. Or was it flabbergasted?
Here she was, aged 51, with almost a decade’s experience as a federal judge behind her and, if confirmed, the history-making distinction of becoming the first Black woman to sit on the nation’s highest court ahead of her. And she was being asked whether babies were racist?
“I don’t believe that any child should be made to feel as though they are racist or not valued, or less than, that they are victims, oppressors,” she said eventually. When Cruz refused to drop the subject she gave a more direct answer.
“I have not reviewed any of those books,” she said. “They don’t come up in my work as a judge, which I’m respectfully here to address.”
That Cruz chose to focus on critical race theory (CRT), the years-old academic theory that has become the latest conservative hot-button issue, in his questioning spoke volumes about the brutal social issue politics of today’s Republican party. That he did so to a Black woman lent the exchange the astringency of a racial dog-whistle.
Cruz’s attack was not unique. Four hours before he began his interrogation, the official Twitter account of the Republican National Committee posted a gif of the nominee bearing her initials “KBJ” which are then scratched out and replaced with the letters: “CRT”. Critical race theory is an academic discipline that examines the ways in which racism operates in US laws and society.
There was another twist to Cruz’s questioning. The private elementary school at which he claimed CRT was being taught – Antiracist Baby and all – is Georgetown Day School on whose board Jackson sits as a trustee. When GDS was founded in 1945 it too made history as the first integrated school, serving both Black and white children, in the nation’s capital.
Lest any of the attendants of the hearings inside the Hart Senate office building or following along on television had doubts about Cruz’s motivations, he grilled Jackson on several other racially-charged subjects. He began by vaunting his own anti-racist credentials by expressing the admiration he shared with Jackson for Martin Luther King.
Within seconds of that warm embrace, however, the senator segued to a speech that Jackson made in 2020 – on MLK day – in which she referred to the 1619 Project.
The project, initiated by the New York Times, seeks to reframe American history by placing the consequences of slavery and the role of African American women front and centre of the national narrative. Cruz asked Jackson if she agreed with some of its more contested conclusions, which he claimed were “deeply inaccurate and misleading”, to which she replied that she had only mentioned it because it was “well known to the students I was talking to”.
Again, she stressed, this was a subject that had absolutely nothing to do with her work – or by implication, the job of a supreme court justice.
Outside observers were incensed by Cruz’s tactics. “What we saw today was an attempt to assail the character of Ketanji Brown Jackson, because her record is so wholly unassailable,” Janai Nelson, president and director-counsel of the racial justice organization, NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said on MSNBC.
Raphael Warnock, the Democratic senator from Georgia and former senior pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist church in Atlanta where King once preached, pondered in the New York Times: “Would they be asking these questions if this were not a Black woman?”
There were other awkward moments in Jackson’s epic inquisition, which she survived while barely dropping the perma-smile from her face. There was the moment that Lindsey Graham, Republican senator from South Carolina, flounced out of the hearing having earlier wrongly accused Jackson of having called George W Bush and the then defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld “war criminals”.
Yet more bizarre was the episode when Marsha Blackburn, Republican senator from Tennessee, asked Jackson whether she could “provide a definition for the word ‘woman’.” “No, I can’t,” came the curt reply.
It was all a far cry from the promise delivered by Senator Chuck Grassley, the top Republican in the judiciary committee, at the start of the hearings. There would be no “spectacle” or “political circus” coming from his side of the aisle.
Several Republican senators followed that pledge by channelling QAnon. Senators Josh Hawley from Missouri, Cruz and Graham all pursued the inquisitorial line that Jackson had been unduly lenient as a federal district court judge in her sentencing of sex offenders who consume and distribute images of child sex abuse.
Though they avoided stating so explicitly, the senators clearly intended to imply that Jackson’s sympathies lay with pedophiles. That’s a short stone’s throw away from the core conspiracy theory peddled by QAnon, the toxic Donald Trump-supporting online movement.
At its “Pizzagate” inception during the 2016 presidential campaign, QAnon fantasised about a child trafficking ring around Hillary Clinton and other Democratic leaders and liberal Hollywood celebrities.
As Media Matters has noted, the claim that Jackson was lenient towards sex offenders consuming images of children first surfaced last month. A conservative group American Accountability Foundation (AAF) ran an “investigation” into her writings while a student at Harvard law school in which she explored discrepancies in sentencing policy in such cases.
The group misleadingly claimed that her writing exposed her as a radical judicial activist dedicated to “social justice engineering”.
Days before the confirmation hearings began, Republican senators had taken up AAF’s lead and were plotting how to use it during the confirmation process. Last week Politico obtained a document that was circulating among the senators in which they rehearsed the claim that the judge “routinely handed out light sentence”, and that the lightest of all were in “child pornography cases”.
A pedophile-sympathising, critical race theory-loving, judicial activist, radical leftist social engineer. The vision of the nominee that was presented over hours of Republican grilling made for quite the spectacle.
But will the political circus work? “They are trying to find some way to make her look less than qualified,” Nelson concluded. “They failed miserably.”