The death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg this year caused a visceral response in America. For some, tears were shed for the loss of someone they considered a hero. For many, tears fell out of fear for what her open spot would mean for the Supreme Court. For others, no tears were shed at all. Instead, anger emerged at the continuation of white women always being protected and cherished when Black women continue to be the most neglected people in America.
As a Black, queer woman stationed in the South and working in the world of reproductive activism, I am no stranger to having to carve out space for myself. W.E.B. DuBois spoke about double consciousness for Black folks, but this splitting of identities is even more of a necessity for Black women and AFAB people. The repro space has always pushed both our Blackness and who we love to the side—a party trick in their back pocket to pull out when it is convenient.
Ginsburg dedicated her career to “women’s rights,” but likely would have failed to see the totality of my humanity—focusing on the rights of my uterus, potentially believing our “womanhood” bound us together. In a world that loves to polarize “men” and “women,” where does that leave us when many fall outside those binaries and the default for those two options is white?
Ginsburg had a role in several important changes in policy. That is a fact. What is also a fact is that she recurrently made decisions that were best for white women. Authoring court decisions on cases for gender-based equity, pregnancy rights, and anti-discrimination employment policies is what she is known for. Pro-choice advocates and feminists of all waves regard Ginsburg as a shining beacon of what feminism looks like. What we are quick to forget though, especially after someone has passed, is that no person is infallible. No person is sans complexities, biases, and a personal (even if not nefarious) agenda.
Her decades-long history of votes in favor of white women and staunch opposition of conservative legislation has undoubtedly made an impact. The decisions she authored that have since become policy are tied to many of my legal abilities as a cis woman, including being employed and educated in all of the same institutions as cis men and the ability to feel secure in my job even if I get pregnant. But how many of these decisions positively affect me only because of what trickles down from straight, white, cis women? How many times were Black queer women intentionally considered?
A better question: How many times were Black, Indigenous, and people of color considered and voted against? How many times have queer people been dismissed? In her personal life, we cannot ignore the fact that Ginsburg was notably best friends with the late Scalia, who had scathing remarks to make about abortion, gay sex, and marriage. By 2020, I would hope that we all agree with James Baldwin when he said, “We can disagree and still love each other. Unless your disagreement is rooted in my oppression and denial of my humanity and right to exist.”
An example of how this distinction plays out was during an interview where Ginsburg was vocal about her disagreement with Colin Kapernick’s silent NFL protests. Ginsburg, for decades, has been outspoken about women standing up for their rights and breaking glass ceilings. Oddly, a Black man, speaking out against the consistent murdering of Black people by law enforcement, is “dumb and disrespectful.” Ginsburg later apologized for negative commentary in regards to Colin Kapernick kneeling in response to police brutality, saying that it was “dismissive.”
Professionally, she has been inconsistent like many judges when it comes to incarcerated people, which we know are disproportionately Black. In some cases, she has leaned to the left when it was easy. There were times when she showed that “women” did not mean all of us, like when Justice Sonia Sotomayor was outspoken about police brutality, and Ginsburg did not side with her. Or, when her pal Scalia likened her highlighting of Black voter suppression in Florida to “Al Sharpton tactics” and she removed the commentary. She had been dismissive of Indigenious people and their land, and signed on to fast-tracking immigrant deportations.
While I aim to adhere to restorative justice tenants, and while everyone has the capacity to be redeemed, infractions like that cannot simply be ignored because of the great things she has done—we are obligated to hold both.
But that continues to be the question: How can we hold both of these things as irrefutable truths?
When Ginsberg died on Sept. 18, fear is what immediately arose in my chest. Subsequently, I felt anger. Not for those who were deep in mourning, but at this imbalanced contraption we call our justice system.
There is no good reason that people should be sobbing at 10 PM because they fear their rights were in the hands of an 87-year-old white woman with cancer. I have empathy for Ginsburg as a human. She should have been able to retire and deal with her illness at home, not at work in defense of democracy. I also believe that as a human, she was flawed, and deifying her in itself is dismissive and dangerous.
Our communities are suffering. COVID-19 did not start it—it just exacerbated and put a spotlight on the wounds that have been there for decades. Subsequently, our rage has been boiling on high heat for upwards of nine months. Ginsburg was never going to save us from this. What one person can?
Everyone has a role, and all are necessary for us to get to a place of authentic equity. That requires some of us to infiltrate, making our way into these rooms where important decisions are made. Some will write the amendments to policy. Some of us will create our own tables, only making room for those who are values aligned. Others of us will tend to the direct needs of our communities while these policy changes are deliberated. Some will televise the revolution. Some will lead the chants. Some will pass out the water. Some will front the bail money. Some will photograph the fist fights. Some will write an article after the fight is over.
We cannot continue to put our livelihoods in the hands of elected officials or any singular individual with nothing more than an expectation of them doing the “right thing.” What I believe the most is that it is our responsibility to show up for ourselves.
The time is now. BIPOC-led journalism like ours has never mattered more.
If you want to read more of Prism’s reporting—reporting that centers the people, places, and issues currently underreported by national media—please consider making a tax-deductible donation today. Readers like you can play a key role in keeping our newsroom strong. From now through December 31, we’re participating in NewsMatch—a national matching-gift campaign that will match every new monthly donation to Prism 12x, and double any one-time donation up to $5,000.