As the first Black woman nominated to a seat on the Supreme Court, Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson is a historic figure. She made history when President Biden nominated her, and she will make history again if, as expected, she is confirmed by the Senate and sworn in as the court’s newest justice.

But as the first Black woman nominated to the high court, Jackson also bears certain burdens that have become evident during her confirmation hearings. She has been subjected to questioning from some Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee that has been explicitly or implicitly all about race.

She has been asked about critical race theory and the history of America’s slaveholding past and whether she has been too lenient in her sentencing as a trial judge — issues that are cultural flash points in today’s caustic political debate but the first two of which have little to do with the actual work of the Supreme Court.

The grilling she has experienced is a reminder that Black Americans are seen and often judged through a different lens than White Americans — and that they also have life experiences that White Americans do not share.

The questioning has ranged through other predictable issues: abortion, gun rights, her representation as a public defender, court-packing, her judicial philosophy. But the most charged exchanges dealt with issues that have clear racial components.

References to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. punctuated the preliminary comments from some GOP senators. Lawmakers cited King’s speech at the 1963 March on Washington, where he said he had a dream that one day “all Americans will be judged, not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” Republicans have used King to express their solidarity with those sentiments before then using it as a shield behind which they pummeled Jackson with questions that come with racial overtones.

On Wednesday, she went through a contentious exchange with Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) over her sentencing practices in cases involving pedophiles and pornography, with Graham repeatedly interrupting her as she tried to answer and committee chairman Sen. Richard J. Durbin asking Graham to let her speak.

Graham has made clear that he is miffed that President Biden did not nominate U.S. District Judge J. Michelle Childs of South Carolina, whom he had endorsed, and instead selected the more liberal Jackson. This is the same Lindsey O. Graham who voted last year to confirm Jackson to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

Supreme Court nominee Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson testifies on the third day of her confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

On Tuesday, Jackson was asked by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) about critical race theory, which has become a target of Republicans in their political campaigns as they have sought to elevate education issues and parents’ roles in school curriculums ahead of the midterm elections.

She was asked about this because she sits on the board of Georgetown Day School. Cruz was offended by some of the books about race that are recommended for students there — including one having to do with critical race theory — and seemingly about the fact that the school embraces social justice as part of its overall mission.

Jackson discusses interpreting the Equal Protection Clause

The political debate around critical race theory has been focused on public schools. Jackson pointed out that Georgetown Day is a private school, one that was founded as an integrated school in 1945 at a time when District schools were segregated. She also said that the board on which she sits has no role in curriculum issues or reading matter and further that the issue Cruz was raising had nothing to do with her role as a judge.

She was asked by Cruz about the “1619 Project,” the New York Times Magazine’s undertaking to reinterpret the history of the founding of America. She had cited the project and the driving force behind it, journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, in a 2020 speech at the University of Michigan.

The 1619 Project is now a best-selling book, but it has drawn criticism from several notable historians for some of its historical interpretation. Jackson cited Jones and the project as part of a speech about the role of Black women in American history. Her specific references did not endorse historical assertions that have been challenged but to highlight that the founders who drafted the Constitution built around the ideas of freedom, equality and democracy did so at a time when slavery had existed in the colonies for more than 150 years.

“Thus, it is Jones’s provocative thesis that the America that was born in 1776 was not the perfect union that purported to be, and that it is actually only through the hard work, struggles and sacrifices of African Americans over the past two centuries that the United States has finally become the free nation that the framers initially touted,” she said, according to a transcript of the speech.

GOP continued attacks on Jackson’s sentencing record despite fact checks

She was challenged Tuesday by Cruz and Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) on the issue of sentencing for convicted pedophiles and child sexual predators. They said, as Graham said, that Jackson handed down sentences shorter in duration than recommended by prosecutors. This topic was not raised in any material way when Jackson was nominated to serve on the appellate court less than a year ago.

Democrats said the charges by Republicans were a distortion of Jackson’s record and that what is really at issue is a policy question for Congress, as other judges have done as Jackson did in setting sentences. Ahead of this week’s hearings, with Hawley making clear his intention to focus on the judge’s sentencing practices, the issue had been discredited even by some conservatives.

Beyond the specifics of Jackson’s sentencing record cited by the senators, the issue of criminal justice has been used by conservatives in political wars to accuse liberals of being soft on crime and more attentive to the rights of criminals than to the rights of victims.

Supreme Court nominee Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson testifies on the third day of her confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Supreme Court confirmation hearings have become predictable, more performative politics than honest inquiry. There are still moments of rigorous questioning and intellectual discussion about the court and cases and judicial philosophy. But partisanship rules the hearing room — as it rules so much else — and few if any votes are likely to be changed by the exchanges between senators and Jackson.

Senators play to various audiences, and the hearings offer a convenient platform for them to position themselves for the future. It’s clear that for those like Cruz, Hawley and others, the people they are trying to reach are conservative voters who might be attracted to them if they run for the Republican presidential nomination in 2024.

Given that environment, the guiding principle for any nominee is: First, do no harm. That’s been Jackson’s approach this week. She has been careful and generally constrained throughout, offering her methodology as a jurist rather than stating a philosophy and at times couching her approach to her role as a judge in conservative language.

In a time of hyperpartisanship, Supreme Court confirmation hearings can become political spectacles, the most recent being the hearings for Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh in 2018. His nomination had a direct bearing on the ideological makeup of the court.

Jackson’s nomination will not change the court in any such way, as she will join the liberal block as a successor to retiring Justice Stephen G. Breyer. The ideological balance will remain at 6-3 in favor of the conservatives. That’s one reason the hearings have yet to become as supercharged as hearings in the past.

But if the hearings lack the ultimate drama of some in the past, they have been revelatory nonetheless, providing yet another window into how race shapes and sometimes distorts perceptions and attitudes. For the first Black woman nominated to the Supreme Court, that has been a price to be paid.