Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s legacy of empathy and courage

Ginsburg’s work has inspired a generation of people who experience outsider status in the US, including Muslims.

Ginsburg speaking
US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died on September 18, 2020 at her home in Washington at the age of 87 [File: AFP/Nicholas Kamm]

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s life embodies the best of America. Her experiences of being a first-generation American, a religious minority, and a woman who overcame discrimination informed her jurisprudence.

The grandchild of Jewish immigrants from Russia, Ginsburg understood how fear of violent pogroms caused her family to leave their home, along with hundreds of thousands of Jews who immigrated to the United States in the early 20th century. She also appreciated the hope for a better life America offers its constant stream of newcomers.

Despite the discrimination she faced, America was a stark contrast with Russia where her grandfather was prohibited from attending school and working in certain occupations because he was Jewish.

Our celebration of the legacy of the first Jewish American woman to serve on the US Supreme Court, thus, speaks volumes about America’s potential for progress.

But Ginsburg knew her success was more an exception than the rule. Her life experiences constantly reminded her that the gulf between America, the ideal, and America, the reality, was wide. During her Senate confirmation hearing in 1993, Ginsburg candidly stated, “I am alert to discrimination. I grew up during World War II in a Jewish family. I have memories as a child, even before the war, of being in a car with my parents and passing a place in [Pennsylvania], a resort with a sign out in front that read: “No dogs or Jews allowed.”

For too many African Americans, Jews, and women of Ginsburg’s generation, legal exclusion from certain educational institutions, neighbourhoods and professions was a daily reminder there were two Americas. One for the insiders, and another for outsiders. This reality influenced how she practised her profession.

In a 2018 interview, Ginsburg admitted that “the sense of being an outsider – of being one of the people who had suffered oppression for no . . . no sensible reason . . . it’s the sense of being part of a minority. It makes you more empathetic to other people who are not insiders, who are outsiders.”

Coupled with her Jewish upbringing that instilled in her a firm belief in the fight for justice, Ginsburg’s outsider status among the first cohort of female students at Harvard Law School and few female law professors nationwide in the 1960s reminded her daily how law perpetuated societal discrimination. Accordingly, she committed her life’s work to dismantling the legal structures that systematically denied women and minorities opportunity and agency.

It should come as no surprise that Ginsburg’s work has inspired a generation of people who experience outsider status in the US, including Muslims. For the past 20 years, overt anti-Muslim racism has been rampant. Ranging from protests calling on Muslims to get out and “go home” to state legislation seeking to deny Muslims the right to practice their religion as part of an “anti-Shariah” national campaign, Muslims have been as openly condemned as Jews were a century ago.

When the Supreme Court in the case of Hawaii v Trump upheld President Donald Trump’s executive order imposing a ban on Muslim immigration, Ginsburg joined Justice Sonia Sotomayor in issuing a scathing dissent.

The two called out the majority for “ignoring the facts, misconstruing our legal precedent, and turning a blind eye to the pain and suffering the Proclamation inflicts upon countless families and individuals, many of whom are United States citizens.” They boldly compared the upholding of the Muslim ban to the court’s shameful 1944 ruling in the Korematsu v United States case which upheld the internment of Japanese Americans and immigrants under the pretext of national security during World War II.

Ginsburg knew all too well the grave dangers of a candidate for president calling for a “total and complete shutdown” of an entire religious group. In a July 2016 interview with the New York Times, she said: “I can’t imagine what this place would be – I can’t imagine what the country would be – with Donald Trump as our president.” As America experiences historic levels of political strife and polarisation – due in large part to Trump’s divisive rhetoric and policies – Ginsburg’s concerns have proven prescient. 

While her life and legacy remind us of America’s tremendous potential for justice and equality, the political fight over her replacement is an ominous warning of the fragility of the American project. Heightened political polarisation, toxic masculinity, and the resurgence of white nationalism threatens the values for which Ginsburg stood – the rule of law, equality, and opportunity.

As we mourn her death and honour her legacy, let us remember her words of wisdom before the Senate 24 years ago, “What has become of me could happen only in America. Like so many others, I owe so much to the entry this Nation afforded to people yearning to breathe free.”

It is now our turn to act on the courage of our convictions to continue the work she began.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.