Is Ketanji Brown Jackson Benefitting From Tokenism?

Author: Natraj Vairavan, Graphics: Walton Bullard

The BRB Bottomline

The idea of tokenism, or the idea that someone was hired due to their race, gender, or other immutable characteristics instead of their merit, is extremely harmful and still widely adopted. The response to Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson’s Supreme Court nomination is just a symptom of this widespread issue.

President Biden nominated Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to the Supreme Court. She is the first black woman to be nominated and confirmed as a Supreme Court justice. While some are enthralled and enthusiastic about this historic nomination, others complain that she only received this because of tokenism, or the idea that Jackson received this nomination due to her gender and race and not through her merits and accomplishments. Are her critics correct in calling her a diversity hire, or are these just unfounded claims?

Judge Jackson’s Background

To answer this question, we must dive deeper into Jackson’s background. A Harvard Law School graduate and former editor of the Harvard Law Review, Jackson went on to serve three judicial clerkships after her time in college, one of which was a clerkship under retired Supreme Court Justice Breyer. She went on to become a federal judge for the United States Court for the District of Columbia. She completed her eighth year in that position just before she was nominated on February 25, 2022 to become a Supreme Court Justice.

Through her track record, Jackson has proven to be a fierce advocate for civil liberties. For instance, in Pierce v. District of Columbia (2015), Jackson ruled that the D.C. Department of Corrections had violated a deaf inmate’s rights by not providing him with adequate accommodations under the American Disabilities Act. A similar example, in AFL-CIO v. Trump (2018), she ruled against three executive orders signed to reduce the amount of time union officials could spend with union members and limit the types of issues that unions could negotiate with companies for. 

Past Justices

Now, let us examine the track records of past supreme court justices. Of the 127 justices confirmed in the past, 41 justices have had no prior legal or judicial experience, most of whom were white men. Moreover, six justices were born in countries other than the United States, all of whom were men. Three justices were law school deans prior to their appointment, all of whom were men.


Clearly, Judge Jackson is not benefitting from tokenism or diversity hiring. However, her critics would make it seem that way. When it comes to male justices being appointed – even more specifically, white men – no one cares to ask about qualifications or their past record. However, the moment that an intelligent, highly qualified black woman is nominated to serve on the Supreme Court, everyone starts to question her merit and points to tokenism as the answer to her success. Unfortunately, this is a problem that many qualified people-of-color in the United States face when it comes to getting jobs, not just Judge Jackson. A 2019 survey by Glassdoor showed that 42% of employees who were people-of-color faced racism in the workplace, possibly due to the idea that they were tokens used to create this image of a tolerant workplace. This crisis is unbelievably harmful for women and people of color, because it confines them to this idea that without their genetically immutable characteristics, they could never hope to achieve what other white men can achieve. If we keep telling these groups that they are tokens in creating a racially and gender tolerant image, we greatly diminish the efforts they have put into getting to where they are. All in all, the more businesses and hiring institutions entertain the idea of tokenism and diversity hiring, the more we take away from the success and achievements of minority groups. In small businesses, corporate America, governing institutions, and every other nook and cranny of this nation, we need to end the idea of tokenism and accept that numerous women and people of color got where they are because of their merit, and no other reason.

Tokenism In Corporate America

Tokenism can often be seen in corporate America when minorities are hired for certain positions but are referred to with their ethnicity in their title. For instance, an Asian board member for a company or nonprofit might be referred to as their “Asian representative” or “Asian board member”, whereas others (namely White employees), might be referred to as just a regular representative or board member. If there is only one person-of-color or woman on a board of executives or workplace, that could also be a sign of tokenism.

Unfortunately, this myth of tokenism psychologically harms many minority employees. For example, Anieka Simmons, a professor of management at Sam Houston State University Texas, published a study on tokenism in the workplace and found that solo minority employees dealt with greater challenges and pushback from their higher-ups and peers than non-minority workers had to. It is also important to mention that workers who are made to feel as if they received their job solely because of their minority status will feel imposter syndrome at higher rates than their fellow non-minority workers. This bias against minority workers and toxic work environment created by the idea that they have only received their job through their minority status and not achievements is what holds these workers back and convinces them that they truly do not deserve to be hired for their position. To illustrate, a study by the Heriot-Watt University found that more than half of the women they surveyed experienced imposter syndrome in their workplace and reported that they constantly felt an unconscious bias, as opposed to only 24% of surveyed males.

For example, this article by KPMG is solely dedicated to Asian representation on Fortune 1000 boards – the more corporations highlight the fact that Asians are somewhat represented on the boards of companies, the more Asian representation feels like an anomaly rather than the norm. The fact that these board members are Asian does not matter in the slightest; however, because KPMG specifically singles out the fact that they are Asian, people start to care about their race. 

Another example of tokenism is how after the George Floyd movement, many businesses (such as Apple) emphasized that they were going to specifically work with HBCUs and increase their recruitment from them. HBCUs are some of the best institutions in all of America and have an unbelievably talented and hard working student population. They do not need Apple and other large technology companies to make numerous press releases, “diversity efforts,” and programs targeted towards black students to be considered “good hires;” whether they come from HBCUs or not, these students are intellectually gifted and can land these jobs without these efforts from companies. However, because these large companies put such great effort into these programs and press releases, it gives off the harmful impression that hiring black people for these companies is an anomaly, and it makes it seem as if minorities cannot be considered good hires without these programs. In turn, minorities are made to feel as if they cannot get these positions without these efforts, and their co-workers might also believe that they truly did not “deserve” this job, when they are just as deserving as everyone else. This creates a toxic work environment and harms the mental health of minority workers because we make them feel as if they do not deserve to be here. All things considered, companies must stop forcing themselves to hire more minorities solely because they are minorities and should start recognizing the innate talent that these workers possess.

Tokenism at Berkeley

Many consulting and technology clubs at Berkeley practice tokenism too, specifically when it comes to recruiting female students. For instance, one might see a “Women in Business” or “Women in Technology” event while applying to clubs. Again, because these clubs specifically mention the fact that they are women in a certain industry or club, it feels like an instance of tokenism. The women presenting at these events have worked unbelievably hard to get to where they are – why should we disregard these efforts by singling out the fact that they are women? Moreover, at these events, they always have women present about being a woman in this field, rather than all of the amazing accomplishments they have accrued at their time in this club or about what they personally find interesting about their work. Many clubs at Berkeley benefit from this unconscious sexism and hidden tokenism, but no one calls them out for it.

Take-Home Points

  • Ketanji Brown Jackson was not nominated because of tokenism
  • Many people of color/women face bias because their peers think they were hired due to their race/gender
  • Businesses must change this practice, make it clear that everyone works hard to get where they are
  • Minorities deserve their position, do not need efforts by companies to recruit specific groups of people

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *