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When extraordinary isn't good enough

By Dr Selwyn R. Cudjoe
February 08, 2022

"[In the United States] Black people have had to perform at a much higher standard simply to receive the rewards of being ordinary. For Black people, being ordinary is an extraordinary achievement."

—Lewis R Gordon on Du Bois's Political Thought

During his lowest ebb in his political career at the Democratic primaries in 2020, Joe Biden promised he would select a black woman to be a US Supreme Court justice if he were elected. About a week ago, Justice Stephen Breyer resigned from the court, allowing Biden the opportunity to fulfil his promise.

One would have thought such a decision would have been treated sympathetically since black women are among the most abused, reviled and debased populations in the US. A day after the Breyer announcement, Biden declared: "The person I will nominate will be someone with extraordinary quali­fications, character, experience and integrity. And that person will be the first black woman ever nomi­nated to the US Supreme Court. It is long overdue, in my view."

Many Americans did not agree with Biden, according to an ABC News/Ipso poll conducted in late January. Among a random sample of 510 American adults, 76 per cent of them wanted Biden to consider "all possible nominees" in order to be fair. Of these, 54 per cent of Democrats preferred that Biden consider "all possible nominees".

Texas senator Ted Cruzcalled Biden's decision "offensive" and "insulting". He fumed: "You know, black women are what, six per cent of the US population? He is saying to 94 per cent of Americans, ‘I don't give a damn about you, you are ineligible.'"

Apparently, Senator Cruz did not find anything wrong with Presi­dent Trump's announcement, made one day after the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, that he would name a woman to replace her. Subsequently, Trump nominated Justice Amy Coney Barret who Renee Graham called "woefully under-qualified". (Boston Globe, February 2.)

Not to be outdone, Senator Roger Wicker, GOP Senator of Mississippi, feared that the yet-to-be named nominee would be a beneficiary of "affirmative action". He said: "The irony that the Supreme Court at the very same time is hearing cases about this sort of affirmative racial discrimination and while adding someone who is the beneficiary of this sort of quota". (NBC News, January 29.)

Worst of all were the denigrating comments of John Kennedy, GOP senator from Louisiana: "No. 1, I want a nominee who knows a law book from a J Crew catalogue. No 2, I want a nominee who's not going to try to rewrite the Constitution every other Thursday to try to advance a ‘woke agenda'." (­Politico)

Why, may I ask, are white people always so pure, independent of bias of any sort?

Many of the black women under consideration for the Supreme Court post are extremely brilliant women. The top three candidates include Ketanji Brown Jackson, Leondra Kruger and J Michelle Childs. Jackson serves as a judge on the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit. She attended Harvard Law School and was an editor for the Harvard Law Review.

Kruger, a California Supreme Court Justice, served as US deputy solicitor general and argued before the Supreme Court. She attended Yale University Law School and served as editor-in-chief of the Yale Law Journal. Childs graduated from the University of South Carolina Law School and was the first black female partner in a major law firm in South Carolina. GOP Senator Lindsey Graham of South Caro­lina describes Childs as "qualified by every measure... I can't think of a better person for President Biden to consider for the Supreme Court than Michelle Childs". (CNN, January 30.)

When it comes to black people, the "democratic impulse" of Americans always rises to the top. No one had any objections when President Reagan nominated Sandra Day O'Connor to be the first woman on the Supreme Court in 1981, or in 1986 Antonio Scalia to be the first Italian on the Supreme Court.

Since its establishment in 1789, there have been 115 justices, 108 of whom were white men. Some were slave-holders (John Marshall, Roger Taney, and Joseph Story) who voted to uphold the institution of slavery. Fifty possessed law degrees, 18 attended law school but did not receive degrees while 47 received their legal education without ever attending law school.

Yet, the qualifications of these exceptionally talented women are being questioned even before they are named; such are the burdens of what it means to be black in America.

Lewis R Gordon spoke of the obstacles that black scholars have had to face in America. He points out that WEB Du Bois, that great African American scholar, "learned early in his career that segregation split the category of the ordinary. While for whites, the achievement of an ordinary life is a rule, for blacks it is an exception since the entire system of racial oppression is designed to block such a possibility for black people".

He noted that despite the fact that Du Bois did much better than his white contemporaries in academia, he "was never offered posts readily available to mediocre white scholars in prestigious American institutions of higher learning... black people have had to perform at a much higher standard simply to receive the rewards of being ordinary. For black people, being ordinary is an extraordinary achievement". ("An Africana Philosophical Reading of Du Bois's Political Thought")

In spite of their stellar achievements, these female lawyers must be more than extraordinary. They must border on the realm of being geniuses, and that's the injustice of being black in America even when it comes to being placed on the Supreme Court.

Prof Cudjoe's e-mail address is He can be reached @ProfessorCudjoe

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The Slave Master of Trinidad by Dr. Selwyn R. Cudjoe
The Slave Master of Trinidad by Dr. Selwyn R. Cudjoe