• Sat. Jun 10th, 2023


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Democrats’ Defense of Ketanji Brown Jackson Leaves Some Wanting More

As Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson solidifies support for her bid to become the first Black woman to join the Supreme Court, Democrats are still debating an enormously complex and weighty topic: how to talk about race in America.

It’s a subject many Democrats would rather avoid, according to strategists and activists who expressed a range of views — and emotions — over days of conversations about Jackson’s rough treatment during the confirmation hearings last week.

“When issues of race come up, Democrats get scared,” said Rashad Robinson, the president of the nonprofit group Color of Change. He lamented that President Biden and Senate Democrats had not more forcefully condemned Republicans for what he said were racist attacks on Jackson’s record and identity.

“The White House has to engage on these fights,” Robinson told us. “Republicans will weaponize race and racism to achieve their goals, but Democrats don’t elevate racial justice.”

The criticism, coming largely but not exclusively from activists on the left, exposes a longstanding divide within the Democratic Party over how to address one of the deepest and often ugliest fissures in American politics. And it comes as Republicans try to rattle Democratic candidates by linking them to critical race theory, a concept that Democrats say is being dragged out of academic obscurity for use as a racist dog whistle.

Allies of the White House — which declined to comment on the record — say they are proud of the way Jackson handled herself in the hearings, and mindful of the wider political stakes. But they say it is up to activists, not political leaders, to lead the struggle for racial progress.

“Race is always on the ballot,” said Donna Brazile, a former acting head of the Democratic National Committee who is informally advising the White House on Jackson’s confirmation.

“But look, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris can’t douse the flames that have been burning for more than 200 years,” Brazile added. Racism, she said, “is a flame that doesn’t go out.”

One of the most polarizing moments of the hearings last week was when Senator Ted Cruz, Republican of Texas, badgered Jackson over the curriculum at Georgetown Day School, a progressive private school in Washington where the judge is a board member. (Our colleague Erica Green wrote a great article about the school’s reaction.)

As aides displayed blown-up page spreads behind Cruz from “Antiracist Baby,” a book by Ibram X. Kendi, the senator asked, “Do you agree with this book that is being taught with kids, that babies are racist?”

For many Democratic women, especially Black women, exchanges like that were enraging. It is a sign, several said, of how women are often treated with disrespect in male-dominated institutions.

“So many of us have been in that space where there’s really nothing you can say or do,” said Karen Finney, a Democratic strategist who is biracial. “It was bullying, and it made people angry.”

Brazile said, “She constantly gave them the respect that they would not give her.” But, she added, “when you go through that glass, you find yourself with wounds.”

Those close to the White House point to months of painstaking work by Democrats to build a coalition of civil society groups to defend Biden’s nominee, fully expecting whichever Black woman he picked to face an onslaught of Republican attacks.

During the hearings, the Democratic National Committee and the White House churned out dozens of messages highlighting favorable coverage of Jackson and accusing Republicans of being disrespectful.

Jaime Harrison, the D.N.C. chair, live-tweeted the proceedings, cheering along at moments like Senator Cory Booker’s soliloquy celebrating Jackson’s nomination, which became a viral sensation on the left.

White House allies also point to polls showing broad public support for Jackson’s confirmation as a sign that the administration’s strategy is working.

On Wednesday, the latest Marquette Law School survey found that 66 percent of American adults said they supported Jackson’s nomination. The poll also found that the percentage of Americans who said Jackson was qualified for the job had improved during the hearings.

Other polls, such as a survey conducted by Pew Research Center in early March, have found that Black Americans are especially likely to view having a Black woman on the Supreme Court as important. Seventy-two percent said it would be extremely or very important, including half who said it would be extremely important.

Ask Democrats how they should respond to Republicans’ attacks on racial matters and they splinter into a kaleidoscope of perspectives.

Some want the Democratic Party to fully embrace diversity as its “superpower,” as Robinson put it. Others urge Democrats to employ 1990s-style triangulation — making a show of denouncing activist slogans like “defund the police,” as Biden did during his State of the Union address.

Some, mainly party insiders who would not speak on the record, would rather change the subject to so-called kitchen table issues like infrastructure, jobs and health care, where they feel Democrats are on a stronger footing.

Others say Democrats can do both.

Finney, who has advised top party officials on how to discuss race, said that Democrats couldn’t ignore Republican attacks — and that they needed to learn how to turn the tables on the G.O.P. by speaking of “shared values” of fairness and equal opportunity.

“The message should be: Every person deserves respect and a chance to succeed, and part of what makes America great is we’re constantly working to improve our democracy and learn from our mistakes,” Finney said.

William Galston, a Brookings Institution scholar who in 1989 wrote an influential treatise with Elaine Kamarck on the Democratic Party’s problem with swing voters, “The Politics of Evasion,” said that it made sense for the party to “retreat to more defensible lines” on certain topics — critical race theory among them.

In a recent essay reprising some of their themes from 1989, Galston and Kamarck wrote: “Most Americans favor teaching both the positive and negative sides of our history, including slavery and racial discrimination, but they will not tolerate pedagogy they see as dividing students along racial and ethnic lines.”

Retreating from cultural fights as opposed to charging into them represents an antiquated viewpoint, a younger generation of activists argue. Inspiring voters of color and encouraging them to vote at higher rates, they say, is more important to the future of the Democratic Party than trying to hang on to a vanishing white majority.

“I think they’re bad at math, frankly,” said Steve Phillips, a prominent progressive Democratic donor, referring to party insiders. “They discount voters of color and put a higher premium on supposedly persuadable swing white voters.”

He added, “They’re constrained by their fear of criticism by people who aren’t going to vote for them anyway.”

This week, a bipartisan group of local election officials in Georgia spoke out in opposition to an expansive election bill that Republicans were fast-tracking in the state’s General Assembly, culminating in a two-hour hearing on Monday in Atlanta.

Now, Republicans in the State Senate appear to have heeded their concerns, stripping the bill down to just one provision: a measure that would allow voters to take two hours off work to vote early in-person. (Right now, they can do so only on Election Day.)

The pared-down version, just one and a half pages long, is a distinct departure from the original bill that passed the House this month. That 40-page piece of legislation would have expanded the reach of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation over potential election crimes; limited private funding of elections; empowered partisan poll watchers; and established new requirements for tracking absentee ballots as they are verified and counted.

By subbing out almost all of the bill at this later stage, Republicans in the State Senate appeared to set up a showdown with their counterparts in the State House who had made clear their desire for a much bigger bill. But State Representative James Burchett, the sponsor of the legislation, appeared on Tuesday before the Senate committee currently debating the bill and seemed to be on board with the changes.

If Republicans in the State House do try to restore some of the election provisions to the bill and vote on it again, they face a tight calendar: The Georgia legislature wraps up for the year in less than a week.

So for now, at least, it appears that the bipartisan criticism from local election officials was enough to sway legislators on an election bill — and may have even prompted them to modestly expand access to voting in a critical battleground state.

But, of course, it’s not done yet, and the Georgia legislature has shown in the past that it can pivot quickly. Stay tuned.

Thanks for reading. We’ll see you tomorrow.

— Blake & Leah

Is there anything you think we’re missing? Anything you want to see more of? We’d love to hear from you. Email us at onpolitics@nytimes.com.