Flatiron Hot! Pundit: Ruth Bader Ginsburg is Wrong About Colin Kaepernick and Black Lives Matter
- Eric Shapiro
- On October 11, 2016
Reported by Eric Shapiro for the Flatiron Hot! News
In an interview on Monday, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, liberal lion of the Supreme Court for over two decades, had some choice words for NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick. Specifically, she criticized his decision, along with other athletes he inspired, to kneel for the Pledge of Allegiance to protest police brutality and institutional racism. The symbolic gesture is heavily associated with the Black Lives Matter movement and is bound to get some press leading up the San Francisco 49ers QB’s first scheduled start of the season. “I think it’s really dumb of them. Would I arrest them for doing it? No. I think it’s dumb and disrespectful. I would have the same answer if you asked me about flag-burning. I think it’s a terrible thing to do. But I wouldn’t lock a person up for doing it. I would point out how ridiculous it seems to me do do such an act.”
Ruther Bader Ginsburg is, of course, entitled to her opinion, but it is disappointing that someone of her intellectual caliber and ideological heft would dismiss a complex issue with superficial insults. I suspect that her chastising words stem from a disagreement not over the fundamental goals of Black Lives Matter, but rather a legitimate, but in this case poorly articulated, disagreements over symbolism and tactics. She is not alone.
The left is divided between what I will refer to for the sake of simplicity as institutionalists and activists. Both Democratic politicians like Hillary Clinton and progressive judges like Ruth Bader Ginsburg, by virtue of their positions, fall into the former category. Activists and their celebrity supporters, because they are operating outside of the system, fall into the latter. From the perspective of Ginsburg and many institutionalists, it may seem prudent to avoid further fanning the flames of racial tension ahead of a major attempt to pass criminal justice reform under a Democratic administration. While the Senate would allow Clinton to fill court vacancies with progressives, passing criminal justice legislation in Congress will require wooing red state Democrats and Republicans who don’t look fondly on Black Lives Matter’s more provocative rhetoric.
From their perspective, criminal justice reform will require the kind of compromise and carefully calibrated rhetoric that activists are not known for. If Black Lives Matter overplays its hand and plays into the narrative that those fighting for civil rights are unpatriotic and/or resent white people, the movement could unwittingly scuttle the best chance for criminal justice reform in a generation. Given America’s history of racial progress followed by backlash (just look at the Tea Party and Donald Trump), such concerns are not entirely unwarranted. However, in calling for what could be perceived as a kind of respectability politics, the progressive establishment risks alienating the grassroots movement that generated a groundswell of enthusiasm for criminal justice reform in the first place. Even as the instititutionalists rely on the support of activists to build and sustain the popular pressure needed to force systemic change, they often disapprove of provocative rhetoric that can make it harder to build legislative coalitions in Congress and make legal arguments.
Okay, back to sports, where politics has historically been a loud, but at times unwelcome, presence. One need not share Kaepernick’s highly critical view of America to feel solidarity with him and the other athletes who choose to protest. The basic message Kaepernick sends with his actions, if not his words, is not that America is bad or that we should mock its rituals out of anger. Rather, kneeling during the national anthem is a symbol of agency and empowerment, a way to speak for the black lives that have been cut short and will continue to be cut short while gridlock and racism prevent change from within the system. It functions as a wake-up call to a nation that all too often lets racial injustice fade into the background in between high-profile shootings. Most importantly, it is a non-violent gesture, the opposite of the looting that, wrongly, characterizes Black Lives Matter in the eyes of many Americans.
Kaepernick’s views on criminal justice may be far from nuanced, but he is an athlete, not a judicial scholar. His actions speak louder than his words and resonate with many Americans more than talk of incremental progress from a government that they perceive as broken. Calls by Ginsberg and other progressives to ‘settle down’ and comport ourselves with decorum may serve to further alienate a grassroots population skeptical (to put it mildly) of the system and further drive down turnout in vital midterm elections.
Of course, reasonable people can disagree over whether Black Lives Matter’s most confrontational tactics are effective. But for Ginsburg, the face of progressive jurisprudence, to compare a high-profile African American athlete’s act of protest to flag burning drives a wedge between activists and institutionalists. It also strains credulity and betrays a deep misunderstanding of the fundamental reason why so many feel compelled to march, chant and take to the streets in protest, at the risk of becoming victims of police brutality themselves. That is, to shine a light on discriminatory and potentially deadly racial bias sanctioned by the state. Celebrities like Beyonce, Kendrick Lamar and Colin Kaepernick have all, in their own fashion, done their small part in spreading a message that has accomplished more in a few years to generate a much-needed conversation about race than the institutionalists have done in decades.
It is fair to question the tactics and rhetoric of Black Lives Matter, but it is difficult to dispute its impact. It is because of Black Lives Matter that the Democratic nominee for president felt comfortable defending the concept of implicit bias at a presidential debate viewed by 80 million people. It is because of Black Lives Matter that Americans know the names Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Terence Crutcher and Sean Bell, to name a few. It is Black Lives Matter that sparks the impetus for racial progress. Progressives in government would do well to channel that grassroots energy into electoral gains and systemic reforms rather than attacking its messengers, however imperfect they might be.
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