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Why do so few Black women serve in high-level federal posts?

My research finds that their confirmations take much longer than average, despite their excellent qualifications.

- June 23, 2021

The past month has been historic for Black women in politics. On May 25, the Senate confirmed Kristen M. Clarke to lead the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division and Chiquita Brooks-LaSure to lead the Department of Health and Human Services’ Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services — the first Black women to lead these two major agencies. Last week, the Senate confirmed Ketanji Brown Jackson to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.

However, for all three women, confirmation was not easy; they endured delays, and none were confirmed unanimously. That’s common for Black women nominees, even when they have remarkable backgrounds, formidable qualifications and impressive records. Simply to be nominated, they must work to become visible to the officials responsible for filling vacancies in the federal bureaucracy and judiciary. Yet once that’s achieved, Black women nominees often struggle to be confirmed by the Senate — mainly because some senators appear to perceive them as too political.

That’s what I found in my research on the fierce battle to seat Constance Baker Motley, the first Black woman federal judge, whom President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed in 1966. Observers regularly attribute senators’ division and disagreements to partisan politics. But that’s not all. In these confirmation battles, senatorial delay, division and objections are steeped in long-standing racial and gender politics, which can block Black women’s paths to holding political office in the federal government.

Black women nominees and the confirmation process

The U.S. Constitution requires the president to nominate and the Senate to approve a variety of top executive and judicial positions. Given this process, the number of Black women in government can increase only with support from both presidents and senators.

To be nominated, Black women must overcome racism and sexism that undermine others’ perceptions that they’re suitable and prepared for powerful positions. For instance, before being nominated to the federal bench, Motley was a local New York City politician and a civil rights attorney for the NAACP Legal and Educational Defense Fund, with an outstanding reputation and career in law. Not until Motley successfully argued cases in the U.S. Supreme Court was she noticed by the predominantly White federal politicos who would later suggest her for the federal bench.

Once nominated, like all candidates, Black women must go through the confirmation process, during which the Senate Judiciary Committee (SJC) evaluates nominees’ credentials and considers whether to forward the nominations to the Senate floor. The SJC frequently holds up Black nominees, especially women — as happened to Motley. In an interview, Motley said, “I was nominated in January 1966 but not confirmed until August 1966, thanks to Senator James O. Eastland of Mississippi. Eastland headed the Judiciary Committee and led the opposition. He held up my nomination as well as the nomination of every other African American appointed to the federal bench during the ’60s.”

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Often, senators hold up and resist Black women’s confirmations because they are perceived as radical. Eastland alleged that Motley was a communist and held anti-American values. Similarly, during Clarke’s confirmation, conservative political commentators and Republican senators insinuated that she was too radical. At one point, Sen. Ted Cruz said to Clarke, “Your advocacy and frankly extreme position on defunding police is paired with a history of not only excusing but celebrating murderers who have murdered police officers,” referring to a conference she’d participated in during college.

Research shows that Senate members regularly delay some nominations to slow or even prevent a nominee from taking office. Even given that, nominees from marginalized groups often face extended delays. Clarke was nominated Jan. 20 but not confirmed for 125 days. Brooks-LaSure similarly faced a delay, waiting 92 days to be confirmed, and Jackson waited 56 days. Compare these to former attorney general Jeffrey Sessions, who was confirmed in about 30 days, despite immense controversy. Extended delays can result in failed confirmations, since nominees pending at the end of a congressional session must be renominated, unless the Senate waives the rule.

Black women nominees for federal judgeships typically get more attention than other positions — sometimes including longer senatorial delays — because these come with lifetime tenure. For example, the Black woman judicial nominee Candace Jackson-Akiwumi was nominated on April 19 to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit. Now, as June ends, it is unclear when the Senate will vote on her nomination.

For some White men nominees, lack of qualifications has not blocked confirmation. But Black women and others from marginalized backgrounds often face challenges even when they have stellar backgrounds and qualifications — as they usually do, simply to be nominated.

Consider Ohio State University professor Koritha Mitchell’s research, which argues that people charged with evaluating candidates for prestigious positions often enact hostile tendencies such as “know-your-place-aggression” and overlook White mediocrity. Know-your-place-aggression refers to the “flexible, dynamic array of forces that answer the achievements of marginalized groups such that their success brings aggression as often as praise.”

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Black women’s future confirmations

Since a lengthy and rigorous vetting process generally happens before a president makes a formal nomination, most nominees are confirmed without much controversy and publicity. In fact, few people ever hear about the thousands of nominees processed by the Senate annually. But some — especially individuals from marginalized groups nominated by Democratic presidents — are delayed or rejected by Republican senators. Some overcome undue confirmation obstacles, like Clarke, Brooks-LaSure and Jackson. Many other Black women nominees in the queue, such as Jackson-Akiwumi, await Senate action.

More Black women may soon serve in the federal government, given calls for increased representation, and a supportive President Biden and Democrats in the Senate. But Clarke, Brooks-LaSure, Jackson, and even Motley’s experiences, remind us that Black women federal nominees will probably endure challenges in being confirmed, especially by Republican senators.

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Taneisha N. Means is a professor in the department of political science and Africana studies program at Vassar College.

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