For me, it was the pause. I knew that the confirmation hearings for Ketanji Brown Jackson would produce a lot of insults and smears from Republicans trying to be racist enough for Fox News viewers to get the message but not so racist that The New York Times would have to acknowledge it. Jackson surely knew it too. And despite over 20 hours of questioning over two days, during which Republicans yelled at her and grandstanded and repeatedly insinuated that she was a terrorist and child-sex-trafficker sympathizer in front of her daughters and parents, she never once lost her cool.
But she did take a really long pause. During Tuesday’s opening round of questions, Senator Ted Cruz went into full racist smear mode. Cruz is a former law school classmate and Harvard Law Review colleague of Jackson’s, but as for many, many white boys from that school, the community and collegiality of a shared alma mater only seems to extend to fellow whites. Jackson is a Black woman, and Cruz’s teeth were out. He was trying to scare white voters by implying that Jackson was a black radical who believes in “critical race theory” and would use her position on the court to put dangerous thoughts in the minds of white children.
Only it was Ted Cruz doing this, so his teeth were crooked, dull, and almost unintentionally comical. Cruz came prepared with posters, like an office manager who never learned how to use PowerPoint. The posters were blown-up pages from a children’s book, antiracist baby, written by Dr. Ibram X. Kendi, so the images were of a blobbishly drawn, racially indistinct baby in a diaper playing with blocks. Remember, this is in the middle of a Senate confirmation hearing for a lifetime appointment to the highest court in the country, and Cruz was up there with his picture-book report and arts and crafts. Cruz pointed to his poster and, in his most wolfishly serious voice, asked, “Do you agree…that babies are racist?”
Jackson started to answer. She said, “Senators.” And then she sighed. And then she paused. For a long time. As the silence filled the room, I felt like I could see Jackson make the same calculation nearly every Black person and ancestor has made at some point while living in the New World. It’s the calculation enslaved people made before trying to escape to freedom, or activists made before sitting down at the white lunch counter. But it’s also the calculation a woman makes before responding to the e-mail of the failson who was just promoted ahead of her, or the calculation I make when a white executive comments on my Twitter feed but not my published columns. It’s the calculation when black people try to decide: “Am I gonna risk it all for this?”
Jackson took a moment to decide if it was worth it to throw everything away—her chance, her good name, maybe even her whole career—just to tell Ted Cruz, a man she’s known for over 25 years, what she really thought of him.