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It is High Time for a Black Woman on the High Court: Part II

Am I the only one who finds it troublesome that of the three people widely reported as likely finalists for Justice John Paul Stevens’ soon-to-be vacant seat on the Supreme Court — all White, two of whom are women — there is not one African-American among the trio?

This is hard to understand, particularly since, as I wrote earlier, “never has there been a wider pool — and never will the time be riper — for the appointment of a progressive Black woman to the Supreme Court. Particularly since the Pew Research Center reports that ‘overall, among all racial, ethnic and gender groups, Black women had the highest voter turnout rate in November’s [2008] election [68.8 percent] — a first.’ This should yield real, bankable — and measurable— capital for a loyal and stalwart constituency.”

And where is the Black press on this story, that has by-and-large been absent on the question of the possibility of a Supreme Court nominee who relates to the plight of African-Americans? 

One exception is Hazel Trice Edney, the National Newspaper Publishers Association’s Washington correspondent. In her article, “Obama Should Consider First Black Woman for Supreme Court, Jurists Say,” Edney cites President Barack Obama’s former mentor and Harvard Law professor Charles Ogletree, who says Black women should not be among the invisible.

“When you think about the success of Black women running universities, running corporations being involved as leaders in religion … you see that we have talents in every conceivable place.   It doesn’t take rocket science to know that there are exceptionally qualified people,” Ogletree says.

Granted, there may be something of a dearth of potential Black female nominees in the 40-something ideal age range.  There is, however, at least one notable exception: Cheryl D. Mills 45, counselor and chief of staff to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who is said to have been all set to nominate Mills for the High Court— had she been elected president. (Ironically enough, Hillary didn’t become president, largely, thanks to the Black female vote for Obama, including mine.) 

In her role as associate counsel to President Bill Clinton, Mills attained national prominence for her stellar defense of the president during his impeachment trial, after which she was promoted to deputy White House Counsel and ultimately offered the job of White House Counsel, which she turned down to pursue corporate and academic opportunities.  She has since served as senior vice president of corporate policy and public programming/general counsel for Oprah Winfrey’s Oxygen Media and, later, as chief operating officer for NYU.

Of course, Obama knows of many imminently qualified Black female esquires worthy of elevation to the high court. The question is:  Why are there no serious Black contenders for the Stevens vacancy, at least not according to media reports?  Could it be because Black America has not given him the political cover to name a Black woman (or man, for that matter) to the High Court?

That is, could it be because Black advocacy groups have not made this part of the “Black Agenda”?  

To his credit,  Ogletree did say— when Tom Joyner asked him if he was under consideration for the Supreme Court, during the “Measuring the Movement” Conference convened by The Rev. Al Sharpton to hammer out a “Black Agenda”— “there are some Sisters who should be on that short list.”  But otherwise, I didn’t hear it come up during the two-hour live telecast on TV-One on Saturday.  Nor was it discussed during MSNBC’s two-hour special Sunday, “Debating the Black Agenda”

After all, as Ogletree said at Saturday’s event, Obama “likes criticism” and likes a challenge.  This bears out syndicated columnist Amy Goodman’s account of the following story in her commentary, “Make Obama Keep his Promises.”   

As the story goes, candidate Obama once recounted an exchange between A. Philip Randolph— during the height of Jim Crow — and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.  Randolph reportedly asked Roosevelt what he planned to do to address the problems confronting the Black community.  In other words, Randolph inquired about FDR’s “Black Agenda.”

FDR reportedly challenged the civil rights icon with this pointed clarion call: “I’ve heard everything you’ve said tonight…and I agree with everything that you’ve said, including my capacity to be able to right many of these wrongs and to use my power and the bully pulpit… But I would ask one thing of you … and that is, go out and make me do it.”

I submit here that FDR and Obama echoed and confirmed Frederick Douglass’ learned declaration of almost a century earlier: “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”

Along these same lines, Sandra Finley, president and CEO of the League of Black Women, offered the following advice in her article “The League of Black Women’s Role in President Obama’s Administration: Homecoming.”: “Don’t blink now,” Finley wrote. “The president-elect has promised to talk directly to you. Pay attention. Call, e-mail and write your legislators.”  

Toward this end, I have started a petition urging Obama and members of Congress to nominate and ultimately confirm the first African-American woman to the Supreme Court. 

I began this quest in Part I of “It is High Time for a Black Woman on the High Court.” As I said then, “We must make our voices heard with regard to the changing composition of the Supreme Court, lest we emerge from the Obama era with Clarence Thomas still the lone Black face among the nine.”

And make no mistake, barring some unpredictable twist of fate, Obama’s impact on the Supreme Court will be felt for a generation. Knowing this, “If we were to sit by mutely and idly, after working to ‘help lift and elect Barack Obama to the highest office in the land,’ allowing this miscarriage of justice to happen, we would deserve it. “ 

But, as fate would have it, there is still time for action. If you would like to participate in trying to shape the arc of American judicial history, then please click here  and sign the petition, “It is High Time for a Black Woman on the High Court.”

Time is of the essence.  We must, in the words of candidate Obama, recognize “the fierce urgency of now.”

Dr. Pamela D. Reed is a diversity consultant, cultural critic and assistant professor of English composition & Africana literature at Virginia State University.

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