Amy Coney Barrett said she wept with her daughter over George Floyd's death, but won't say whether racism is 'systemic'

John Haltiwanger
Amy Coney Barrett
Supreme Court nominee Judge Amy Coney Barrett speaks as she attends the second day of her confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, October 13, 2020. Brendan Smialowski/Reuters

Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett said the brutal killing of George Floyd was "very, very personal" for her because she has two Black children, but she would not say whether racism is "systemic" in the US during her confirmation hearing on Tuesday. 

"Senator, as you might imagine, given that I have two Black children, that was very, very personal for my family," Barrett said in response to questioning from Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois.

Barrett said she was with her 17-year-old adopted daughter from Haiti, Vivian, when "all of this was erupting and it was very difficult for her."

"We wept together in my room and it was also difficult for my daughter, Juliette, who is 10. I had to try to explain some of this to them," she continued. "For Vivian to understand there would be a risk to her brother or the son she might have one day of that kind of brutality has been an ongoing conversation. It is a difficult one for us like it is for Americans all over the country."

Barrett was then asked about the broader conversation on racism in the US, and how some would prefer that children aren't educated on slavery and reject the notion that racism is systemic. 

"Racism persists in our country," Barrett said, but she declined to offer a clear answer on whether the problem is "systemic."

"As to putting my finger on the nature of the problem, whether as you say it's just outright or systemic racism, or how to tackle the issue of making it better — those things, you know, are policy questions," President Donald Trump's Supreme Court nominee added.

Describing systemic racism as a policy question is misleading and at odds with the lived reality of many people across the US. There is a mountain of evidence that systemic racism exists in the US, particularly as it pertains to the criminal justice system but also in aspects of daily life.

Floyd was killed by a Minneapolis police officer who kneeled on his neck for an extended period in late May. His killing was filmed and sparked protests across the US and the wider world, as well as a nationwide conversation on the pervasiveness of racism in the US. Polling over the summer revealed a massive shift in US perceptions of racism, in that the vast majority of Americans for the first time — including a majority of whites — began to say that racism is a major problem in the US. 

Later on Tuesday, Sen. Cory Booker asked Barrett if she would condemn white supremacy, and she did.

Barrett was also pressed by the Democratic lawmaker from New Jersey on her recent opinion in a discrimination case in which she wrote that the N-word is "an egregious racial epithet," but also said that the use of the word in and of itself did not create "a hostile or abusive working environment."  

Barrett stood by her opinion, stating that the defendant in the case did not "tie the use of the N-word into the evidence that he introduced for his hostile work environment claim."

"As a panel, we were constrained to decide based on the case the plaintiff had presented before us," Barrett said. "So the panel very carefully wrote the opinion to make clear that it was possible for one use of the N-word to be enough to establish a hostile work environment claim if it were pled that way."

This article has been updated.

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