First but not last: Black girls see themselves in the court’s choice


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

Nine years later, memories are hazy, 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 at school.

“At that age, I didn’t see a lot of influential black people who went to the Ivy League or really elite schools,” Bofah said. “I like to put quotes around it because it’s very subjective, but that’s when I started idolizing it. That’s what led me to want to be a role model for other girls who like to look like me.

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

“Having someone who knows what it’s like to support disadvantaged customers 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 changes that go beyond mere representation.

Rachel McBride, an 18-year-old high school student in Atlanta, compared the moment more to a glass elevator than a glass ceiling — going up one level, while keeping in mind the many other levels remaining.

“It’s great to be first, but you never want to be last,” McBride said. “A singular person cannot be the one who makes change happen. It needs to be followed by more and more people who are ready to make changes.

When barriers are broken down, McBride said, it’s often followed by backlash or a sense that marginalized communities should be happy with the symbolism. While Jackson would bring invaluable perspective to the court, McBride said, she is mindful that the balance of the court would remain unchanged if Jackson were confirmed.

Already, some have tried to downplay Jackson’s nomination as affirmative action or discrimination against white people. Whether that strategy will continue as his Senate hearing begins on Monday will be widely watched.

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

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

“The really, really stressful thing about being black, especially being a black woman, is you have to be the best to go anywhere,” McBride said.

For black girls, seeing someone like Jackson—the way she wears her hair, her darker complexion, her name with African origins—fully embrace her blackness and rise to the top of the American justice system is a reminder that they don’t shouldn’t have to shrink to be successful.

Breana Fowler, a 17-year-old high school student in Charlotte who wants to become a lawyer, said her mother joked that she would become the first black woman to serve as a Supreme Court justice. Seeing the present moment much sooner than either thought possible, with someone like Jackson in the role, remains surreal.

“She wears her hair high and proud,” Fowler said. “A lot of times, brown-skinned and dark-skinned girls are the ones who get ridiculed a lot about their intelligence, their looks. For her to be confident and 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 that their natural hair is unprofessional, said Tamara Morgan, 18, a high school student from Atlanta. Their natural appearances are held against them and used to diminish their qualifications, she said.

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

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

Hakim Wright Sr./AP

Tamara Morgan poses for a portrait in Atlanta on Sunday, March 13, 2022. Seeing black female leaders embracing their identity means so much to Morgan. She said it’s like looking in a mirror and seeing yourself and seeing what’s possible.

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

For many girls, Jackson has already done this throughout her career and background prior to her nomination.

Sidney Griffin, a 16-year-old Charlotte junior who has been involved in youth advocacy campaigns, including those for diversity in school curricula and tuition fairness for students covered by the Deferred Action Program for Childhood Arrivals, said that moment pushed her to think even bigger.

“She definitely inspires me to keep creating change in my community,” she said. “But it also makes me wonder how much more can I do to impact not just Charlotte, but also North Carolina and, I mean, America? She inspires little girls around the world and teenage girls like me to keep fighting for change and to diversify those in power who can make those decisions that will influence us today and for generations to come.
Ma, based in Charlotte, North Carolina, writes about education and equity for AP’s Race and Ethnicity team. Follow her on Twitter:
The Associated Press’ reporting on issues of race and ethnicity is supported in part by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.


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