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It’s time to make Ketanji Brown Jackson the first of many

April 8, 2022, 7:52 PM UTC

As we acknowledge the first-ever Black Supreme Court Justice, it’s time to focus on who comes next. Speaking of the talent pipeline, Jonathan Vanian digs into one potential pitfall facing employees of color in a hybrid work environment—and a straightforward fix for managers who want to be equitable when it comes to doling out career-advancing assignments. And we want you to make time to connect with the people and ideas who we think hold a little piece of the puzzle of a more inclusive and empathetic world.

Happy Friday.

Ketanji Brown Jackson is once again the only one. But this time, it feels different.

On Thursday, the U.S. Senate voted 53-47 to confirm Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to the Supreme Court, making her the first Black woman to serve on the highest court in the land. She has a long history of being the only one or close to it—as Candice Norwood of The 19th points out, when Jackson clerked for Justice Stephen Breyer, less than 2% of the high court’s clerks at the time were Black. And, when she became a U.S. district judge in 2013, the number of Black women who sat on the federal bench never budged over 1%.

While she will not change the ideological makeup of the court, it’s clear she will change the court. Her arrival creates the first-ever all-women liberal wing, a welcoming environment that we should expect will add richness and depth to dissenting opinions going forward. If you believe in the research on diversity, that is.

This now more racially diverse and gender-mixed court is likely to yield better outcomes, create better work processes, and enjoy more generous and egalitarian relationships while they do their thing. Speaking of the work, if the past is any indication, Jackson’s unique experience as the first-ever federal public defender to sit on the court will come into play right away.

According to the SCOTUS Statistics section of the online version of the Harvard Law Review, in 2020, 15 out of 62, or 24% of cases heard by the court were criminal in nature. (I’m including six habeas corpus cases in this figure.) In 2019, the court heard 12 criminal cases out of 59, or roughly 20%.

But today I’m thinking about all the qualified underrepresented students, lawyers, and jurists who have been overlooked or shunted away from opportunities to grow their careers and serve their communities. In particular, I’m thinking about the Black girls and women who now have clear evidence that, well, it’s technically possible.

It’s now up to us to make sure they don’t have to work three times as hard as Brown did.

Who are “they?” People like current Harvard Law student Abigail Hall, 23, who had hoped to be the first Black woman on the Supreme Court. But, “if I have to be second, I’m fine being second to K.B.J,” she told The New York Times. “She’s had to meet every single mark and she hasn’t been able to drop the ball, and that’s something that’s ingrained in us, in terms of checking every box, in order to be a Black woman and to get to a place like Harvard Law School.”

She then made a Thanos (Marvel supervillain) joke.

“I’ve had to work to get here, but there’s so much work to do and that’s just motivating me to continue to break down those barriers, to meet my marks and get my Infinity Stones.”

What will it take to remove those barriers before she gets there? Here’s an excellent white paper prepared for the Bar Association’s Commission on Women in the Profession and the Minority Corporate Counsel Association, that digs deep into the pervasive array of biases facing women and people of color in the legal profession.

Let me know what you’ve been through, or what you think needs to happen now. Subject line: De-bias legal

Wishing you a celebratory weekend.

Ellen McGirt

In Brief

The rise of remote and hybrid work has made it possible for companies to recruit more people of color who live in places outside major metropolitan areas. But the same phenomenon could also exacerbate systemic bias within businesses if executives fail to pay attention to the career needs of their workers of color.

Joan Williams is a distinguished professor of Law at the University of California, Hastings College of Law where she was a founding director for the university’s Center for WorkLife Law. Williams has studied workplace equity for decades and tells Fortune that the COVID-19 pandemic “has had a big impact on workplace flexibility,” and successfully managing the transition to permanent hybrid or remote work, could help companies “retain mothers, retain fathers, and retain people of color.”

You can find her TED Talk, "Why Corporate Diversity Programs Fail," here.

“The research surveys suggest that people of color are much less interested in returning to full-time on-site than white people are,” Williams says. “On the other hand, if companies don't handle this transition right, it could further jeopardize their DEI goals,” she adds, referring to diversity, equity, and inclusion.

The reason is simple:

“We find in our studies, time after time after time again that white men get much better access than any other group to career-enhancing assignments,” she says.

Indeed, it’s likely many of us have heard managers say something like “the best ideas come from conversations in the hallway,” referring to the serendipitous ideas that lead to big, important projects. But who gets to participate in those hallway conversations? And who feels comfortable even being in those revered hallways?

Now with remote and hybrid work, people of color could have even less of a chance to take part in the spur-of-the-moment dialogues that executives place so much importance on fostering a constructive work culture.

It doesn’t have to be this way, however.

She recommends that managers “develop a typology” that helps them track which employees get the “great work” and which ones are doing the “keep-the-trains running" work. Doing so doesn’t take too much of a time commitment and it can also reveal patterns detailing how the company promotes and trains its workers of color, thus helping to identify potential diversity problems.

Williams notes how she’s worked with companies in which many of the white executives would say that their businesses were “focusing too much on diversity, it's corroding meritocracy.” After they started tracking data through workplace experience surveys and recording which employees were landing the career-advancing projects, they saw the information that “completely changes the conversation.”

If managers aren’t tracking that data, they could fail to see the patterns. And then when their workers of color start leaving their companies, they may attribute the departures to reasons out of their control.

“Jamal, he left for this reason; Susan, she left for that reason; Keith found a great job elsewhere; and Juan, he just wasn’t a winner from the beginning—he didn’t belong here,” she says regarding the justifications managers might come up with. “There's always a reason.”

“But then when you see the pattern, it’s like a different conversation,” Williams says.


Jonathan Vanian 

On Point, the events edition

Do you work for a great company?  On April 25 at 1 pm Eastern, Fortune CEO Alan Murray will hold a special celebration of the 25th anniversary of the “100 Best Companies to Work For” list. Joining him will be Great Place to Work® CEO Michael C. Bush, Target CEO Brian Cornell, Hilton CEO Chris Nassetta, Cisco CEO Chuck Robbins, and Accenture CEO Julie Sweet to discuss what it takes to make a company great, and how diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging are essential for all modern companies seeking top talent, engaged employees, and breakthrough innovation. Expect both big picture and deeply tactical advice. See you on the Zoom.

Inclusion on Purpose: Mindfulness and Belonging in the Workplace  If we know that inclusion is the right thing to do, what’s taking so long? There is no better person to address this question than Ruchika Tulshyan, a dear friend to raceAhead, and author of Inclusion on Purpose: An Intersectional Approach to Creating a Culture of Belonging at Work. In this special session, she brings an unusual new and clearly indispensable element to the work: Mindfulness. “This is not something that comes naturally to us,” says Tulshyan. “It takes awareness, intention, and practice." The free 45-minute workshop is on Thursday, April 21 at 1 pm Eastern Time.

The Nurse Antigone  Also on April 21, the Greater NYC Black Nurses Association is hosting a free dramatic reading of Sophocles’ Antigone on Zoom, with a mix of professional actors and a chorus of frontline nurses, who will be part of a powerful discussion of the challenges faced by nurses before, during, and after COVID and quarantine. Performers include Tracie Thoms (Rent), Taylor Schilling (Orange is the New Black), John Turturro (The Batman), Ato Blankson-Wood (Detroit), Keith David (Armageddon), Craig Manbauman (Nurse, Poet, US Air Force Veteran), Sandy Cayo (Board Certified Nurse Practitioner), Elizabeth Hazlewood (RN, BSN, MSA), and NYC Public Advocate Jumaane Williams. It’s interactive and moderated, so you can join in the discussion, too. The free performance is co-presented by Theater of War Productions and runs from 7-9 pm Eastern Time.
The Nurse Antigone

Get your spoken word on with this free Literary Conversation hosted by PEN/Faulkner, which will include reading and performances by acclaimed poets and spoken word artists Fatimah Asghar, Olivia Gatwood, Danez Smith, and moderator Nate Marshall. Politics and Prose, a D.C. bookstore and culture hub is a partner. You may know Asghar as the co-creator of the Emmy-nominated web series Brown Girls. Her debut poetry series explores her life as a young Pakistani Muslim woman in America, orphaned at a young age, navigating her coming of age in a world of violence, uncertainty, and intersecting identities.

an aunt teaches me how to tell/an edible flower/from a poisonous one./just in case, I hear her say, just in case.
Literary Conversation


This edition of raceAhead was edited by Wandy Felicita Ortiz.

Parting Words

We live in a nation with acres of ground that’s been watered with tears and sadness. But today is a mountain of joy. Today is a day for celebration. Today, I rejoice. I cry tears of joy.

Senator Cory Booker

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