Wendell Greer III, special education teacher and faculty advisor to the Black Student Union at Panorama High, watched somewhat bemusedly as a group of selected students filed into a classroom that had been specially prepared for a visit from Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) Superintendent Alberto Carvalho.
The group of Black, Latino and Asian seniors sat down and remained rigid in their seats awaiting with backs straight and eyes looking forward, not even daring to whisper among themselves.
Finally Greer couldn’t stand it any longer. “Talk!” he commanded in a slightly raised voice. The students broke into laughter and relaxed. Greer smiled. Because this day — April 8 — was a day for celebration.
Carvalho was not coming just to shake hands and tour the campus. He was joining the students in acknowledging and rejoicing the confirmation of Kentanji Brown Jackson to the US Supreme Court.
Jackson had been confirmed by the US Senate the day before to become the 116th Justice in the court’s history. She is the first African American woman appointed to the bench. (There have been two African American men — the late Thurgood Marshall and currently sitting Justice Clarence Thomas.) She served as a clerk for retiring Justice Stephen Breyer while also carving out her own distinguished legal career as a public defender, and as a judge on the US Court of Appeals (DC Circuit), and US District Court for the District of Columbia.
In late June or early July she will be officially sworn in to replace Breyer, who officially steps down at the end of the court’s current term.
Greer emphasized the students meeting with the superintendent “definitely understood” the significance of Jackson’s selection and confirmation, “especially our young women.” Many watched the Senate proceedings, from the partisan questioning by Democrats and Republican regarding Jackson’s qualifications to the announcement that the confirmation vote was 53-47.
“They now feel they can accomplish anything,” Greer said. “They can set their goals high. And I know that they’ve all been inspired by what has transpired. Now they are seeing that there are more people who look like them in the Supreme Court.
“With Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson becoming a Supreme Court Justice, this sets a high standard for my own daughter, and all women of color.”
Stephonie White, a senior who plans to enroll at Xavier University this fall, said she related to Jackson in many ways, because African American women “always go the extra amount and overachieve [for] our success.”
Added fellow senior Jerome Manarang, “I feel nothing but a lot of pride and joy for her making it this far. I see her crying tears of joy [when confirmed], which I feel are very justified because she really worked hard to reach the place she’s in right now. And I feel like we should all learn a thing or two that if we work hard enough, we can reach a place where we want to be.”
That was the kind of inspiration Carvalho said he wants to reinforce. One of the reasons he wanted to come to Panorama, he said, was that its 1,400-member student body — which is more than 90% Latino — doesn’t get enough acknowledgement for what is being accomplished here academically.
“Here in the Valley I’ve seen some conditions that need improvement. This is a school where everything seems to be great,” Carvalho said. “We need to amplify and replicate the success story here. We know the level of poverty, diversity, English language limitation, but not the academic standing [showing] that demographic profile of students are succeeding.
“I could have gone to many, many schools. I was in South East LA last night. I was in Koreatown this morning. I feel the need to meet students where they are. And here’s what I know … in any one of these schools [like Panorama], there are representative elements that need to be acknowledged.”
During his hour-plus visit, the superintendent reminded the Panorama students that Jackson, who is originally from Florida, was educated in public schools before matriculating to Harvard to study law. And that he knew her parents — Johnny Brown, an attorney, and Ellery Jackson, an educator — when Carvalho was superintendent of the Miami Dade County Public Schools before accepting the LAUSD offer in February.
“Her father was the general counsel for the school board at Miami Dade County. He was the school board attorney until the day he retired,” Carvalho said. “And her mom was one of the most remarkable principals at New World School of the Arts, which is sort of the Juilliard of the South, a performing arts and visual arts and fine arts school the likes of which is hard to find across the country. Her mom was the visionary leader and principal of that school.”
Carvalho said he knows that Jackson will not tilt the philosophical leanings of the court, where the conservatives have a 6-3 edge. But she does drastically change the makeup of the court in other ways. For the first time there will be four women and two African Americans among the nine sitting justices. Also for the first time, a majority of the justices will not be white men.
Most important, Carvalho said, was the fact that Jackson was nominated and ultimately chosen on merit, and that a justice with her background was sorely needed.
“Whether we’re talking about the fact that she is the first, she brings not only a terrific array of legal experiences, but also a ‘lived experience’ as a minority in this country,” he said. “The fact that she, quite frankly, has the opportunity to set an example for those who, for far too long, have lived hopeless existences, now we’ll see a bright light at a level that many thought could not be achieved during our lifetimes.”
“And I do believe that that was a voice that was missing on the Supreme Court …. And those days were marked by injustice, by abuse, by under-representation, and by a forced submission that turned many in our communities into invisible entities,” Carvalho said.