On Friday, the country was rocked by the death of Supreme Court Justice and feminist icon Ruth Bader Ginsburg. In the days following her death, many have begun to consider her history of protecting the natural rights of women. Her professional accomplishments are vast, including, but certainly not limited to, establishing the application of the 14th amendment’s Equal Protection Clause for women, the right of women to sign a mortgage or open a bank account without a male co-signer and the right for male widowers to receive Social Security benefits. Beyond her career, Ginsburg has been nicknamed “Notorious RBG” by social media-era feminists who admire her achievements and powerful confidence. However, her legacy is not so simple.
In 2016, Ginsburg responded to San Francisco 49ers former quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s protest against police brutality by kneeling, stating that she thought that it was “dumb and disrespectful” and calling Kapernick “arrogant.” Given Ginsburg’s long history of working for equality, her racially insensitive comments regarding Kapernick’s silent protest are difficult to reconcile. By policing the forms of protest used, Ginsburg reveals she felt more strongly about ‘right’ ways to protest than systemic racism. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote in “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”: “Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will.” King perfectly explains why Ginsburg’s short-sightedness, while not a new phenomenon for supposed allies of Black equality, was incredibly disappointing.
The aforementioned example is only one by Ginsburg that is disparaging toward historically oppressed populations. In 2005, Ginsburg wrote an opinion in favor of the 8-1 majority in the Sherrill v. Oneida Indian Nation Supreme Court case: “[Given] the Oneidas’ long delay in seeking judicial relief against parties other than the United States, we hold that the tribe cannot unilaterally revive its ancient sovereignty, in whole or in part, over the parcels at issue.” Ginsburg’s argument against the Oneida’s attempt to reclaim their land stolen by New York overlooks America’s history of restricting Native American populations from bringing cases to court, so their “long delay” was not a fault of the Oneida but a product of centuries of systemic oppression that was furthered by Ginsburg’s ruling and opinion.
How do we mourn someone with such a complex legacy? On Friday, when I first heard about Ginsburg’s death, I was shocked and lamented the loss of such an incredible feminist icon. On Saturday, I remembered what I had read back in 2016 about her comments on Kapernick’s protest and felt anger at her lack of intersectionality and at myself for being unnecessarily critical in the wake of her death. Now, I am trying to harmonize these contradictory perspectives I have of Ginsburg, and in attempting to do so, I have realized that talking about Ginsburg’s complex history is necessary, albeit quite uncomfortable.
While Ginsburg has paved the way for women in every field through her legal work and cultural influence, her racial insensitivities reveal the pervasiveness of systemic racism against Black and Indigenous people of color. Realizing that Ginsburg, a passionate fighter for equality, was susceptible to internalized racism, forces us to consider our own internalized racism. Her failings show us where the feminist movement must be successful in the future.
Ginsburg was a revolutionary in terms of furthering gender equality, but that alone. Ginsburg pushed past her comfort zone. We must continue her legacy by pushing past our comfort zones as well, both in the way in which we perceive our idols and the ways in which we perceive ourselves. By simplifying her legacy into something palatable, we run the risk of allowing the revolutions we push for to become similarly short-sighted.
Ginsburg has infamously said: “Women belong in all places where decisions are being made.” Regardless of her complex legacy, I am tremendously thankful to her for making the voices of myself and other powerful women louder. Further, I am thankful for the lesson her legacy provides me to continually educate myself on systemic oppression and uplift, especially, Black and Indigenous women of color. May peace be upon her.