Opinion: Ketanji Brown Jackson’s success serves as a critical lesson

In 2022, we are closer than ever to aspiring to the equal protections promised in the US Constitution and our laws, even as racial and gender inequalities persist in many areas of American life.

This is a moment worth celebrating. But it also invites us to reflect on how individual success is related to the ideal of opportunity for all.

It has taken more than 230 years to reach this auspicious moment. Until 1967, when former President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed Thurgood Marshall to the Supreme Court, presidents only chose white men to serve as justices. And for hundreds of years, not only did race and gender define the composition of the court, but the court, in its decisions, also served as an instrument of discrimination against people of color and women.
During his confirmation hearings, Jackson acknowledged the dramatic changes in our country over the last 60 years that facilitated his own rise. Without the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibiting discrimination based on race and sex in education and employment, Jackson’s chances of earning the excellent educational and legal credentials that helped prepare her for a Supreme Court nomination from the US would have been little or none. Even with the Civil Rights Act in place, it took years of lawsuits and protests to open the doors of predominantly white universities and elite sectors of the legal profession to African Americans.

But while there is certainly reason to celebrate the change that Jackson’s court confirmation symbolizes, that celebration is not enough. We must also ask ourselves whether American institutions are doing what they must to ensure that all students, including the many people of color and the young women and girls who will be inspired by Jackson’s rise, have a real chance to reach their full potential.

Unfortunately, our educational institutions still fail to nurture the talents of many American children. State-mandated racial segregation and sex discrimination are illegal today. But the likelihood of success in American K-12 and postsecondary schools still depends largely on factors beyond an individual’s control, often correlated with race and gender in ways that reinforce the effects of past discrimination, so legal.

When a child is born and grows up it is an accident of birth. As Harvard economist Raj Chetty has shown, a student’s ZIP code is closely related to life chances. Highly racially segregated areas, as well as those with high income inequality, poor schools, low social capital, and low family stability, tend to have low upward mobility from one generation to the next.
The most powerful moment in Ketanji Brown Jackson's testimony
Geography often directly determines access to high-quality schools with experienced teachers, college-preparatory curricula, and a host of co-curricular offerings, from STEM clubs to speech and debate teams. Jackson’s educational journey to Harvard began precisely at that school; She was a debate star at Miami Palmetto Senior High School and graduated well prepared for admission to a selective college and career school, lucrative employment opportunities, and career success.
The level of education of a child’s parents is another fluke. Those born to parents with college degrees are much better positioned for success in K-12 school and are more likely to access and succeed in college. In fact, parental educational attainment is often identified as the most important factor predicting students’ educational achievement, and households headed by college-educated parents tend to provide greater economic, emotional, and social stability. During her opening remarks, Jackson acknowledged that the support of her parents, Johnny and Ellery Brown, both graduates of historically black colleges and universities, fueled her success, including her ambition to attend law school.
Millions of children who were not born into such homes often lack the social and emotional support and behavioral skills to thrive academically, and too few American schools teach the skills these students need to succeed.
The disadvantages suffered by students from low-income families and without college-educated parents compound over time. Students from low-income households are severely disadvantaged in the frantic race for admissions to elite universities, a process that rewards students who grow up in wealthier zip codes and with committed parents who can provide access to test preparation and including educational consultants. And even these powerful advantages aren’t enough for some well-connected, wealthy parents seeking admission to selective colleges through so-called “side doors.”
Students from modest backgrounds who manage to gain admission to the highest educational echelon in the nation often face a deck stacked against them, as Harvard sociologist Anthony Jack has shown. To navigate unfamiliar norms and cultures and feel a sense of belonging in and out of college classrooms, these students must address what I have termed the “tutoring gap,” providing opportunities for interpersonal connection and community building. Jackson herself described feeling out of place at Harvard and recalled that it took the kindness of a stranger, a black woman passing by who admonished her to “stick it out,” to help keep her on track during a moment of doubt.

All of these factors intersect to create persistent structural inequalities in our educational system and in society. We can do better, much better.

In this time of transformation on the US Supreme Court, we shouldn’t just celebrate the achievement of one exceptionally successful black woman. We must also work harder than ever to create a more equitable society, one that supports the development of high-achieving people from all backgrounds and every neighborhood in America.

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