‘I’m Not Talking About Racism. I’m Talking About Decency.’

Cory Booker reflects on his emotional speech in support of Ketanji Brown Jackson.

Cory Booker
Drew Angerer / Getty

By the time Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey brought Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to tears yesterday, the Supreme Court nominee had been answering questions from the Senate Judiciary Committee for more than 20 hours over two days. She had, by nearly all accounts, handled herself fine, alternately deflecting or batting away Republican attempts to portray her as a soft-on-crime judge who coddled pedophiles and supported the indoctrination of America’s schoolchildren. Her confirmation, which is a sure bet so long as the Democratic caucus sticks together to vote for her, was in no more doubt than when the hearings began, but Booker could sense something turning sour.

“I’m just sitting here saying, ‘Nobody’s going to steal my joy. Nobody’s going to make me angry,’” Booker said as Jackson blotted her eyes with a tissue. “You have earned this spot. You are worthy. You are a great American.” By the time he had finished, not only Jackson but members of her family and even a staffer sitting behind Booker were wiping away tears.

“The energy in the room was really just not good,” Booker told me over the phone this afternoon. We spoke a day after the Democrat had delivered the instant highlight of the week-long hearings, a speech that began as a rebuttal to the GOP’s attacks on Jackson and then morphed into something resembling both a pep talk and a tribute to the first Black woman nominated to the nation’s highest court.

What was most compelling about the final minutes of Booker’s speech was its sheer ebullience. The last memorable speech at a Supreme Court confirmation hearing came from Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who likely saved Brett Kavanaugh’s 2018 nomination with an eruption of indignation (wholly manufactured, Graham’s critics would say). Booker, by contrast, injected an unexpected burst of joyful pride into hearings that had become a dreary, predictable slog, the meaning and history of Jackson’s nomination lost amid the partisan interrogation.

Yet beneath Booker’s beaming smile was a more painful recognition of how Black people, and especially Black women, were processing the particular tone of the Republicans’ treatment of Jackson. “You feel that familiar hurt,” Booker told me. “This is obviously a Supreme Court nomination, but I have yet to meet an African American woman this week who hasn’t come up to me and said she couldn’t relate to her, to what she was experiencing.”

As a politician, Booker’s earnestness doesn’t always land. His attempts at sunny optimism, while appealing to certain voters, sometimes seem out of step with the times. Democratic voters never rallied behind his 2020 presidential bid. Even in rising to Jackson’s defense this week, he has hesitated to call out Republicans by name and has veered back toward the senatorial collegiality that annoys many progressives. On Tuesday, Booker made a point of saying he liked Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, one of Jackson’s fiercest critics and a Republican who inspires little warmth even from members of his own party.

During his speech yesterday, Booker noted that he was the fourth Black person popularly elected to the Senate in American history. He referred to the indignities Jackson had suffered as a Black nominee and called the attacks by Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri and others “beyond the pale,” “dangerous,” and “a new low.” Yet unlike many of Jackson’s supporters, he would not label his fellow senators racist. “I’m not going to try to get into the head of my colleagues to understand what’s motivating them. It’s a fool’s errand,” he told me. “I’m trying not to meet the frequency of that room. I was trying to change the frequency of that room.

“I was not trying to center their negative attacks,” he continued. “I was trying to center her positive candidacy, her extraordinary light. I knew that those 20 minutes, those precious 20 minutes, were an opportunity to change the frequency from the negative back to the positive, to refocus the light on her glory.” Booker added that “as soon as someone makes a charge of racism, people fall into their defensive camps. I’m not talking about racism. I’m talking about decency.”

Ultimately, Booker’s speech is unlikely to change the political dynamics of Jackson’s nomination. She’ll probably win confirmation on close to a party-line vote, perhaps with a few Republicans in support. After the hearing yesterday, Booker told me he exchanged hugs with the judge, who thanked him for his comments. He also spoke with Jackson’s husband, Patrick. “I felt his sense of gratitude,” Booker said. “He didn’t have to say it to me. It was in his eyes.”

Booker told me that Senate staffers, Capitol Police officers, and even a few reporters (“off the record,” they insisted) have all stopped him to offer thanks. On the Senate floor yesterday evening, Booker said, three Republicans he declined to name told him privately that they found his remarks powerful and praised him for “taking things to a higher level.” Will any of them vote for Jackson? I asked him. He laughed loudly. “Not a one.”