IN MEMORY OF THE LIFE AND LEGACY FROM JUSTICE RUTH BADER GINSBERG
Updated: Mar 19, 2021
Nisha Anand, CEO, Dream Corps
The passing of Ruth Bader Ginsburg has thrown rocket fuel on an already raging partisan fire. In a final statement dictated to her granddaughter, Ginsburg made it clear that her wish was that the next president appoints her successor. She knew the maelstrom that would result from her death, and she hoped to avoid the worst of it by letting the American people speak.
In the wake of her death, with a pivotal election less than two months away, polarization and partisan politics are at a fever pitch. The current climate is what it is. We cannot change that overnight. What we can do, however, is not get so fixated on how to honor Ginsburg’s last request that we fail to honor her legacy.
A memorial to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg as she lies in repose at the Supreme Court Sept. 23 (PBS)
Ginsburg was many things. A trailblazer. An advocate. A brilliant jurist, a progressive hero, and a feminist icon. Yet too often overlooked is the fact that she embodied a way of looking at the American experiment that was both honest and hopeful. It was honest, in as much as she never blinked when looking at the ugly parts of America’s history. “We have the oldest written constitution still in force in the world, and it starts out with three words, ‘We, the people,’” she said. “Think back to 1787. Who were ‘we the people’? … They certainly weren’t women… they surely weren’t people held in human bondage.”
But if Ginsburg avoided the easy pitfalls of lying about or overlooking the American reality, she also never discarded the American dream. “The genius of our Constitution,” she continued, “is that over now more than 200 sometimes turbulent years that ‘we’ has expanded and expanded.”
America, for Ginsburg, was always unfolding. It is a country “that welcomes people to its shores. All kinds of people. The image of the Statue of Liberty with Emma Lazarus’ famous poem. She lifts her lamp and welcomes people to the golden shore, where they will not experience prejudice because of the color of their skin, the religious faith that they follow.”
As the daughter of immigrants and a woman of color in America, I have lived this tension between honesty and hope, a motley past and an open future. Almost every day I feel stuck between a blind arrogance that says America can do no wrong and a nihilistic pessimism that disrespects those who struggled to improve it.
This legacy of Ginsburg is worthy of more attention. It underlined her faith in American jurisprudence, American institutions, and the American people. I would argue it was also the foundation of her unlikely friendship with Antonin Scalia, an arch-conservative fellow member of the court. Though they agreed on almost nothing, they could find common ground by looking for ways that this country could live up to its grand promises.
How do we honor this kind of legacy? It is more than the work of one Supreme Court fight or one election season. We need to embrace the idea that a country can grow and change and put forward real solutions to make that possible. We can start with continuing the work of criminal justice reform, the only true bipartisan accomplishment of the last four years. The home of the free currently imprisons more than 2.3 million people, far more than any other similar nation. People who were formerly incarcerated often end up as second-class citizens. We need to guarantee the right to vote for people who served time, expand and reform parole, provide more help to get people back on their feet after re-entry and emphasize second-chance employment. The good news is that studies show these sorts of humane measures actually make us safer and cut costs.
Second, we can honor Ginsburg’s legacy by reckoning with America’s ugly history of racism, from local police departments to corporate boardrooms. It is impossible to be part of ‘we the people’ when it feels like you are walking around with a target on your back. We need meaningful police reform that ends police violence against all people of color, and especially Black men. We also need to recognize that America’s future will be shaped by high-tech industries and new technologies – fields that currently do not reflect America’s diversity. Bias accidentally coded into algorithms cannot have the last word about who matters in America.
Lastly, we need to put out some fires. The anti-immigrant fire that has blazed the last few years is a betrayal of millions of people who sought a better life on these shores. The very real fires in the west – along with storms on the Gulf Coast – remind us that the climate crisis does not affect us all equally. Black, Brown, and low-income communities from Los Angeles to Appalachia are getting hit first and worst. It is time to invest in a green economy in these same communities, in order to transform our future and heal wounds from our past.
The beauty of all of this is that these are concrete solutions that folks on the right and left have, and can, get behind. Even if they are fighting over a contested Supreme Court. “We’re still striving for that more perfect union,” Ginsburg said, “And one of the perfections is for the ‘we the people’ to include an ever enlarged group.”
Fighting to expand ‘we the people’ is the best way to honor Ginsburg’s legacy, and the only way to move forward.