Administration

The Memo: Democrats pin hopes on Ketanji Brown Jackson to revive Black support

Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson answers questions during the third day of her Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing on Wednesday, March 23, 2022.
Greg Nash

President Biden and his party have been grappling with a lack of enthusiasm among Black voters — and they’re hoping the confirmation of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson can turn things around.

Jackson stands all but assured of making history as the first Black woman on the Supreme Court. Sen. Susan Collins (Maine) became the first Republican to back her this week, while the most conservative Democrat in the upper chamber, Sen. Joe Manchin (W.Va.), also announced his support. 

Those moves make it hard to see how Jackson, a former public defender now serving as a federal appellate court judge, can be thwarted.

If she is confirmed, Biden will have kept a promise first made during the 2020 Democratic nomination process. Biden promised shortly before the South Carolina primary to appoint a Black woman to the high court if he won the presidency. 

His victory in the Palmetto State resuscitated his candidacy. Whether Jackson can do the same for his presidency remains to be seen.

Biden has signally failed to make much progress on two issues of particular importance to Black activists, police reform and voting rights. The nation’s economic troubles and the lingering effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have pulled down his support among the broader Black community — even more so than with the nation at large.

“I am hearing people who were super enthusiastic last election now saying, ‘Well, I haven’t gotten anything for my vote,’ ” said one well-known Black activist, Johnetta Elzie. “I know there is usually some disappointment, but this just seems different.”

Data backs up the anecdotal evidence.

A Marquette University Law School poll this week indicated that the erosion of support for Biden among Black voters has been stark. 

The share of Black adults approving of Biden’s job performance fell a startling 32 points since July 2021, from 88 percent to 56 percent, the poll found. By contrast, Biden’s approval numbers with Hispanic voters and white voters during the same period declined by just 5 points and 10 points, respectively.

A Quinnipiac University poll in January showed Black approval of Biden having fallen by 21 points in a year, from 78 percent to 57 percent. 

Progressive Black commentators suggest Biden bears at least some of the blame for the failure to achieve more — even as they celebrate Jackson’s likely confirmation to the Supreme Court.

Cornel West, the prominent Black academic and author, told this column that Jackson was “a brilliant, visionary judge of great integrity” who had been treated with “ugly disrespect” by some of the Republican members of the Senate Judiciary Committee at her recent hearings.

But when it comes to Biden, West said, “He is making such a marvelous choice of Judge Jackson but not really fighting for voting rights that are disproportionately affecting Black voters. He held back in that fight, and he wouldn’t push against the [Senate] filibuster and now it looks like it’s too late. We have got to look at both the best of Biden and the worst of Biden.”

Other prominent Black voices have also been raised in dissent.

New York Times columnist Charles Blow penned an open letter to Biden in early March. “Black people are weary of this political dance, of being drawn near and then pushed away,” Blow wrote.

Around the same time, Elie Mystal wrote in The Nation that when he had voted for Biden in November 2020, he “was hoping for actual policies, not merely appointments and platitudes.”

For the left, it’s not only Biden’s failure to make headway that causes frustration. It’s the perception that he has pivoted to court white centrists and moderate conservatives. In his recent State of the Union address, Biden pushed back against a central slogan of the left with a call to “fund the police!”

“How much more money could they possibly need?” asked Elzie, who first became politically active after the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014. “More training, blah blah blah. How can’t they afford more training with the money they are getting?”

But the Biden administration, aware of the stakes, is sensitive to the suggestion that it has let down Black supporters.

A White House fact sheet from late February asserted that “from the first day in office and every day since” the administration had “taken an historic approach to advancing racial equity.”

The president and his supporters point to the passage of the American Rescue Plan roughly a year ago, which they say helped people with lower incomes — a demographic that is disproportionately Black — in numerous ways.

They also note efforts to address housing discrimination, a $5.8 billion investment in historically Black colleges and universities, more money for education and a concerted attempt to avoid racial disparities in health care.

When it comes to the politics of representation, Biden can point to Vice President Harris, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Chair of the Council of Economic Advisers Cecilia Rouse, among others, as the first Black people to hold those posts.

There are, too, some in the Black community who sound positive notes about Biden’s record, even as they acknowledge its imperfections.

Glynda Carr, the president of Higher Heights for America, said that the likely confirmation of Jackson to the Supreme Court showed Biden “living his values in terms of the importance of diversity and inclusion that he set forth as a candidate.”

Carr, whose organization supports and promotes Black female leadership, acknowledged that voting rights had not been protected as she would like and that efforts at police reform have not yet succeeded.

But she praised the White House for its major legislative achievements, including the passage of a huge infrastructure bill late last year, and placed the blame for the other shortcomings at the feet of Congress.

“We are living in a hyperpartisan, divisive time and policies that would impact African Americans and Black women have fallen short with the membership of our current Congress,” she said, urging people to stay engaged.

Whether those kinds of appeals are heeded could go a long way toward determining the outcome of November’s midterm elections. 

The potential for Jackson to boost Black enthusiasm should not be written off either.

But right now, the signs do not look promising for Biden and his party.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.

Tags 2022 midterms Biden Black voters Joe Biden Joe Manchin Ketanji Brown Jackson Ketanji Brown Jackson Supreme Court Susan Collins voting rights
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