I must admit that I am often skeptical of public figures who are bestowed a status — auntie, uncle, cookout invitee — that grants them membership into our cultural community absent birthright. There is such great, irrevocable reverence and presumed responsibility that comes along with that status that I still cannot quite wrap my head around the ease with which it seems those titles and invitations are given. What my brain and my heart can comprehend, though, is the treasure of one’s lifework. This is how I feel about Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
This generation knew her as Notorious RBG. Although, you would never hear me call her that of my own volition. Perhaps the moniker was an attempt to make her life’s work more accessible. I am squarely in the “the only Christopher we acknowledge is Wallace” camp and that extends to his stage name, too. Whatever the reason, a woman of her stature — so petite yet so grand and powerful — is nestled in the sweet space between pop culture, politics, and civic duty. And so is her passing.
Earlier this week, YelloPain released his video for My Vote Will Count. It is perhaps the clearest and most honest lyrical examination of the combined forces of fear, frustration, and voter apathy, particularly for Black people in this country. Yet, in his lyrics, YelloPain was able to convey an important lesson to anyone listening: voting has not changed our lives yet, but we cannot resign ourselves to thinking that this election or any election for that matter is about one person, rather it is the culmination of actions made by people at every level of government that make the difference in our everyday lives. That includes the judicial branch and, most resonantly, the Supreme Court of the United States.
If your social media feeds are anything like mine, they were likely filled with declarations ranging from the undirected and doomsday NO!’s, panic, and fear to strategic urgency, calm, and faith. Sprinkled in were voices that commanded us all to avoid cynicism and get to work. Yet, these days it feels impossible to not be cynical because I have little faith in people to do the right thing. The distance between optimism and disappointment is shorter, and I find it more difficult to abide inaction and conspiration in the demise of our democracy. So, it makes sense to me when leaders like Derecka Purnell say, “Resistance, organizing, protests and struggle have done much more for social movements than the Supreme Court ever has. A vacancy is concerning, alarming even, surely. But history teaches us to resist, not defer to courts.” It also makes sense to me when leaders like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez say, “Now is not the time for cynicism and hopelessness. There is and continues to be political possibility to preserve our democracy & move forward. It will require each & every one of us, from the streets to the Senate, to grow in courage, strength, and strategy. But it is possible.”
Can we hold up the banner of democracy as an avenue for change while being deeply skeptical of it, too?
It is easy to be resigned to an either-or outlook when envisioning how we move forward collectively at this moment. Both perspectives are right, and, in fact, they say much of the same thing. Unfortunately, although we all eventually listen, the language of resistance is rarely heard well when packaged in Black, female bodies. There are many among us who are highlighting the challenges of this moment and those who are fighting for Black liberation and movements that elevate the voices of the poor recognize the ideological compromise we are all being asked to make in the presidential election. Those with less to lose — those who are not getting wet — which, by the way, includes Democrats and Republicans alike, are not able to truly understand that for those with much to lose, the choices are not purely ideological and can be the difference between life and death, freedom and confinement.
There is no difference between the protesters' rage and a Justice’s dissent.
Like each of us, Justice Ginsburg was but one vote. On a Supreme Court bench split 5–4 between justices appointed by Republican and Democratic presidents, she often found herself on the right side of a failed vote. Her duty as a public servant required her to cast a vote, despite how real the prospect of losing. Yet, it was in her dissents that her legacy is most instructive. They articulate a vision of a reality that prioritizes humanity over corporate or organizational bodies. Most importantly, they underscore the vulnerability of our political systems to narrow sensibilities and caution (or foreshadow) the future outcomes with which we must grapple. So, too, do the voices of those who have not yet seen the benefits of voting. The trepidation many of us have around the vacancy created by Justice Ginsburg’s passing is not unlike the fear many feel in being asked to put faith in a failed system, yet again.
There is value in the cynic and the cynical. By raising our awareness of that thing that we have been taught to believe creates change — our vote — does not, indeed, create changes for everyone, the thoughtful cynic commands us to pay attention to the margins. To be cynical does not require that one reject the institutions that at this time are best equipped to erode the cynicism. This is not the moment to silence the cynic. If anything, we should heed the cynic now more than ever. Unfortunately, the Democratic Party has failed at creating space for skepticism, activism, and civic duty to meaningfully converge.
Somewhere on a balcony in Arlington, Virginia, an ex-friend of mine is probably enjoying a cigar and bourbon. I do not intend to say that he is in any way enthused by the death of a well-respected Supreme Court Justice. However, I am sure he feels immense satisfaction with the prospect of another conservative appointment, particularly given Senator Mitch McConnell’s announcement last night. It is the type of smug satisfaction one gets when a poor decision yields the right outcome.
On January 30, 2017, he wrote to me in reference to his vote for Donald Trump:
“I don’t support him; I voted for him. I think there’s a difference. I mean, I am rooting for the Falcons in the Super Bowl, but I am not a Falcons fan. I think elections are binary choices, and I — as a Republican — take the William F. Buckley approach: vote for the most conservative candidate who can win. I am also a Supreme Court nerd, so I want Republicans nominating the judges, too. So, I voted for the guy; it doesn’t mean I don’t think he is a buffoon. He is.”
There are many Americans like this former friend of mine. Even the most rational conservative who despises the stain that Trump brings would be willing to sacrifice a real opportunity for their values to be enshrined in the American judicial system at its highest level. As much as I want to have faith that the Republican-led Senate will prioritize Country over Party, little gives me hope that they will. We must all remember that the values this Party aims to protect are not those of the country my ancestors built. They are values that strike across the backs of everyone that is not a White, heterosexual, cisgender, Christian, man. When the North Star of your moral compass is self-advancement, neither democracy nor precedence matter. That is the cry of the “cynic” and the voice of the people. And, if our plan to act does not honor that, we are destined to lose.
The Senate will vote and so must we, despite our skepticism of its utility. Their actions reveal that the Republican Party is dangerous and by not listening to the voices of dissent, the Democratic Party will be equally dangerous, too. Our choices are restricted and like Justice Ginsburg, each of us is but one vote. Even if we lose this battle, our one vote, repeated over and over, can change the course of this nation. We could have a President named Stacey, if we want. We can have 218 Congressmembers like Cori, if we want. We can have 51 Senators like Charles Booker, if we want. We can have thousands of mayors like Chokwe, if we want. We have the power to slowly (or swiftly) bend this nation and her laws to value the needs of the most vulnerable when we are ready to believe that reality is possible. I believe Our Black Party can lead us there.
We cannot honor Justice Ginsburg’s legacy, appoint her as a pop culture icon, and elevate her “I dissent,” while admonishing the dissenters. Listening to the dissenters brings the people on the sidelines onto the playing field. It brings in the people and ideas that exist on the margins and it is, right now, the most patriotic thing we can do.