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Analysis

Competing Visions of Patriotism on Display at Ketanji Brown Jackson Hearings

Amid the inquiry into Jackson’s fitness to become the first Black woman on the Supreme Court, American patriotism was on trial.

April 1, 2022
Ketanji Brown Jackson speaking before the Senate Judiciary committee
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
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This article was first published in the Wash­ing­ton Post

Beneath the surface of Judge Ketanji Brown Jack­son’s Supreme Court confirm­a­tion hear­ings this past week, another proceed­ing was under­way. It went on quietly in the back­ground, masked by two unend­ing days of senat­orial ques­tions and mono­loguing that bookended all of the judge’s responses. Amid the inquiry into Jack­son’s fitness to become the first Black woman on the nation’s highest court, Amer­ican patri­ot­ism was on trial.

As the nation’s spot­light turned to the hear­ings, compet­ing versions of patri­ot­ism were on display. Sen. Cory Book­er’s (D-N.J.) rous­ing and emotional speech on the second day of ques­tion­ing typi­fied one vision. “There is a love in this coun­try that is extraordin­ary,” Booker said before point­ing to Jack­son’s parents, who faced Jim Crow’s racial discrim­in­a­tion, and saying, “They didn’t stop loving this coun­try even though this coun­try didn’t love them back.” Describ­ing the discrim­in­a­tion faced by Black Amer­ic­ans and immig­rants from China, Ireland and other coun­tries, Booker said that real patri­ot­ism declares, “Amer­ica, you may not love me yet, but I’m going to make this nation live up to its prom­ise and hope.”

Book­er’s speech echoed Jack­son’s nomin­a­tion accept­ance remarks at the White House last month, her open­ing state­ment on the hear­ings’ first day and the tenor of many of her answers through­out. She paid homage to Black civil rights icons as she told the Senate, “I hope that you will see how much I love our coun­try and the Consti­tu­tion, and the rights that make us free.” And she called out the specific notes in Black Amer­ic­ans’ song of patri­ot­ism by explain­ing how her African name signaled both pride in her herit­age and hope for our nation’s future.

But these appeals ran head­long into another kind of patri­ot­ism. Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) and Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) latched onto Jack­son’s senten­cing decisions in child porno­graphy cases and used every oppor­tun­ity to attack her judg­ment, char­ac­ter and compet­ence. Hawley’s accus­a­tions were so inflam­mat­ory that even conser­vat­ive comment­at­ors labeled it demagoguery and dishon­est. Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) chal­lenged Jack­son’s service as a public defender for four detain­ees at Guantá­namo Bay and insinu­ated she relished the oppor­tun­ity to repres­ent terror­ists against Amer­ica. Sen. Marsha Black­burn (R-Tenn.) sugges­ted that Jack­son harbors a hidden agenda to go easy on viol­ent crim­in­als and child pred­at­ors, as well as integ­rate crit­ical race theory into grade schools and the legal system. On this latter point, both Cruz and Black­burn implied that Jack­son’s mention of the 1619 Project in a speech and service on the board of a progress­ive Wash­ing­ton, D.C., private school that has an anti-racist action plan must mean she believes Amer­ica is funda­ment­ally and irre­deem­ably racist. It seemed clear that the object­ive was to paint Jack­son as unpat­ri­otic, a threat to the coun­try and a partic­u­lar concep­tion of the Amer­ican way of life held by some in the GOP.

One narrat­ive told of an Amer­ican patri­ot­ism, born of hard­ship and optim­ism and incre­mental progress, oriented on our nation’s professed ideals. The other professed a patri­ot­ism that is combat­ive, subsist­ing on the iden­ti­fic­a­tion of adversar­ies and promot­ing the constant pres­ence of threat — an inward-facing intol­er­ant form of nation­al­ism. The former is expans­ive, inclus­ive and unify­ing; the latter, narrow, restric­ted and priv­ileged. With race still cent­ral to national policy debates, the hear­ings presen­ted Amer­ic­ans with these differ­ing versions of what it means to love our coun­try. The week gave us a taste of both and tacitly deman­ded that we identify which we prefer.

To answer, we must reckon with what, exactly, Amer­ican patri­ot­ism is. Defin­i­tions abound, but philo­sopher Stephen Nath­an­son offers some general contours of patri­ot­ism. In his book “Patri­ot­ism, Moral­ity, and Peace,” he refers to it as “special affec­tion for one’s own coun­try, a sense of personal iden­ti­fic­a­tion with the coun­try, special concern for the well-being of the coun­try, and will­ing­ness to sacri­fice to promote the coun­try’s good.” There is little objec­tion­able here — but once theory meets our history, our iden­tit­ies and our visions for the coun­try, things get complic­ated quickly. Not only does the expres­sion of patri­ot­ism include an exag­ger­ated kind that excuses cruelty and immor­al­ity, as well as an ethical sort that marries values to the national interest, but there is also no consensus on what Amer­ican patri­ot­ism should look like or who can be its proto­typ­ical embod­i­ment.

In the United States, patri­ot­ism is connec­ted to the national iden­tity. And racial and ethnic minor­it­ies have long been perceived to be less Amer­ican than White people. When a single race is connec­ted to the national iden­tity in a multiracial coun­try foun­ded on the idea of our inher­ent equal­ity, the result­ing hier­archy is espe­cially discon­cert­ing to those who are not members of the national iden­tity group. As those who have been excluded and margin­al­ized battle for inclu­sion in a nation they helped create and sustain, a choice emerges for the coun­try: Receive these demands as oppor­tun­it­ies to hew closer to the nation’s ideals — or see them as threats that must be resolved in an expedi­ent manner.

Black patri­ot­ism contains affec­tion for Amer­ica, concern for its well-being and a will­ing­ness to sacri­fice for it. That patri­ot­ism explains why enslaved and oppressed gener­a­tions of Black Amer­ic­ans still fought, sweated, bled and died in all of the nation’s wars despite being denied access to liberty and demo­cracy at home. It under­stands that, although the United States has long breached the social contract with its Black citizens, the fight to enjoy the rights and priv­ileges asso­ci­ated with being accep­ted as truly Amer­ican is neces­sary and more than worth it. And because Black patri­ot­ism sees Black iden­tity as compat­ible with the national iden­tity, it rejects the idea that Black people are a lesser kind of Amer­ican. Jack­son and Booker gave voice to this brand of patri­ot­ism — distinct, as a product of Black Amer­ican history but now the province of all peoples once excluded from Amer­ica who have insisted that they, too, belong here.

Conversely, a more uncrit­ical and extreme Amer­ican patri­ot­ism recoils at the idea of a chan­ging nation and permits ques­tion­able beha­vior toward those who desire evol­u­tion of the Amer­ican iden­tity instead of blind assim­il­a­tion. It makes enemies out of compat­ri­ots, bear­ing no toler­ance for those with whom they share a demo­cracy unless they adopt the same world­view and agree on unques­tion­ing national loyalty. This is the fuel that drove the Jan. 6 Capitol insur­rec­tion, where self-proclaimed far-right patri­ots sought to viol­ently wrest control of a pres­id­en­tial elec­tion outcome to protect against threats they perceived to be housed in Black and Hispanic communit­ies.

In this light, the trial running along­side Jack­son’s confirm­a­tion hear­ings begins to make more sense. We are a polit­ic­ally polar­ized nation in which partis­ans view their oppon­ents as exist­en­tial threats to Amer­ica and its demo­cracy. Too many of us have rewar­ded politi­cians who run on messages of divi­sion and distor­ted facts out of polit­ical expedi­ency. We are sold a purely capit­al­istic view of the values that under­gird Amer­ica — where equal­ity, liberty and justice are treated like finite commod­it­ies and limited resources that require the denial of them to some so that they can be enjoyed in full by others.

And yet, amid the conspir­acy-driven antics of those who profit from a polit­ics of divi­sion, a patri­ot­ism insist­ing that many peoples can indeed become one persists. If justice is done, senat­ors will consider Ketanji Brown Jack­son’s nomin­a­tion on the merits of her profes­sional record and judi­cial tempera­ment alone. As for the trial that accom­pan­ied her hear­ings, the Amer­ican people are judge and jury. And poster­ity awaits our verdict.