Juxtaposed images of Ruth Bader Ginsburg in judges robes, and Colin Kaepernick in his 49ers uniform, on one knee and protesting.

When Our (White) Feminist Heroes Fail Us: On “Notorious RBG” and Colin Kaepernick

Last week, a Supreme Court justice — one of the most prestigious and influential decision makers in the country — was asked to weigh in on a significant public protest against a spate of police brutality that specifically and severely affected the black community. Her response? “I think it’s dumb and disrespectful,” the justice said, adding also, at various other points of her interview, that the protest was “ridiculous,” “stupid,” and “arrogant.”

The justice in question was not Justice Alito (notorious for constituting the far right of the court with the late Justice Scalia); nor was it Chief Justice Roberts (who famously wrote, “our country has changed” — read: racism is over — while gleefully hacking away at voting rights protections for minority communities). No, it was the champion of progressive feminists across the country: Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, affectionately nicknamed “Notorious RBG.”

As a progressive feminist myself, Ginsburg’s comments came as an unpleasant surprise. As any person who’s had to thumb through Supreme Court decisions in the past few decades could tell you, her most meaningful opinions and decisions have had huge implications not just for gender justice but also for racial justice. Ginsburg has, for example, written a stirring dissent in Shelby County v. Holder, slamming the majority for not recognizing the reality of racial injustice in voting. She’s long recognized the race problems plaguing America, and has been a steady vote on the right (meaning left) side of any major Supreme Court decisions dealing with race and the law: Fischer (affirmative action); Foster (striking out jurors on racial bases); and Ricci (unlawful discrimination through disparate impact) are some key recent examples.

Let’s be clear: it isn’t surprising for a Supreme Court justice not to enthusiastically sign off on transgressive protest, particularly when it involves controversial stances on the flag, or the national anthem, which hold a strong and impassioned place in the national imagination. Ginsburg is a solid, incrementalist, work-with-the-system, nonradical liberal who works for one of the most elitist institutions in the country, and nobody is expecting her to burn flags, or criticize America’s white supremacist architecture any time soon. What is surprising, however, is that she, as a noted champion of social justice values, criticized Kaepernick with such belittling, unsympathetic words, and seemed to patronizingly tell him off without recognizing the burning importance of the cause that he was protesting for.

Kaepernick himself put voice to this best when he said, “It is disappointing to hear a Supreme Court justice call a protest against injustices and oppression ‘stupid, dumb’ in reference to players doing that.” Or, put in the words of David Zirin, at The Nation:

I am less struck by the words “dumb,” “stupid,” and “arrogant” than by the words she does not say: “police,” “racism,” “injustice,” or “death.” There is no reckoning with the reason why so many people feel driven to kneel in protest and raise their fist in the name of black lives.

Zirin adds that calling Kaepernick “arrogant,” sounded too close to “uppity” for comfort, and he’s right to point that out. That someone who is firmly established in a predominantly white, elite institution would clamp down so hard on a black person standing up to that institution is a terrifying reassertion of the status quo over those who dare question it. As Kaepernick notes: 

I was reading an article and it refers to white critique of black protests and how they try to de-legitimize it by calling it “idiotic, dumb, stupid,” things of that nature, so they can sidestep the real issue. As I was reading that I saw more and more truth how this has been approached by people in power and white people in power in particular.

Ginsburg’s comments call into question the white feminist heroes that capture our imaginary and have a prominent place in our feminist lore: to what extent can they really be radical, or represent the values that we aspire to, as an intersectional feminist community?

We are currently in the throes of an election where those of us who have valid, leftist, intersectional critiques about another prominent white woman in an elite institution are asked to suppress them because of the very real threat from Donald Trump. In such an environment — and with the overwhelming white feminist support for Hillary, or Ginsburg, or other prominent white women in positions of power — Ginsburg serves as a depressing reminder that there are some fundamental values that those of us on the intersectional feminist left deeply desire, and that we will be left wanting if we idolize these heroes uncritically, and do not turn elsewhere.

After all, Ginsburg’s disappointing comments aren’t fully explained by the constraint on her radicality by virtue of being a Supreme Court justice. Justice Sonia Sotomayor has found a way — from the very same bench — to still speak truth to power and challenge racial injustices deeply embedded within the same system she forms part of, giving voice to concerns about police brutality, racism, and systemic injustice. (Notably the part of Sotomayor’s stirring dissent in Utah v. Streiff, which nodded at Black Lives Matter and explicitly addressed race, was not signed on by Ginsburg.)

Let’s reevaluate the pedestal we put our feminist heroes on and demand that they do the constant work of allying their version of feminism with the fight against racial injustice. Standing up for women necessarily includes standing up for black women, and their communities. We must push all the self-avowed (white) feminists in positions of power — and push ourselves — to constantly do better.


Meg is a law student in California. She's interested in law and politics, intersectional feminism, criminal justice, human rights, freedom of the press, the law and feminism, and the politics of South Asia.

Meg is a law student in California. She's interested in law and gender, race and criminal justice, human rights, cats, and sports.

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