Editor’s Note: Peniel E. Joseph is the Barbara Jordan chair in ethics and political values and the founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, where he is also a professor of history. He is the author of several books, most recently “The Sword and the Shield: The Revolutionary Lives of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.” The views expressed here are his own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s legacy, in so many ways, is fundamentally important to understanding our current national and global age of Black Lives Matter. Indeed, her presence in popular culture rests in large part on the global popularity of hip hop, which represents a defining cultural innovation of post-civil rights America.
Ginsburg and hip hop legend Christopher Wallace – aka the original “Notorious BIG” – shared a Brooklyn-born birthright forged in the crucible of a borough famous for producing icons (Jay-Z anyone?) who started out as underdogs.
Shana Knizhik, an NYU law student, gave Justice Ginsburg the moniker “Notorious RBG,” popularized through a Tumblr account and a subsequent book co-authored with journalist Irin Carmon. Ginsburg acknowledged that she and Wallace were both born in Brooklyn, but had little else to say about the comparison.
The woman who became the Notorious RBG was a Harvard and Columbia-educated lawyer who, in the parlance of the streets, took no shorts, meaning she suffered no fools gladly. But the same passionately brilliant legal mind that railed against the Supreme Court’s callous decision to stop protecting the voting rights of all Americans in the 2013 Shelby v. Holder decision also exhibited some blind spots.
On the issue of race, chief among these was her response, later walked back, to NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling during the national anthem to protest against racial injustice. Ginsburg, in an unscripted moment with Katie Couric in 2016 she came to regret, characterized the protests as “dumb and disrespectful.” (She later said her comments had been “inappropriately dismissive.”)
Kaepernick, who surely knew of the Notorious RBG’s by now well-founded image as a political maverick and trailblazer, publicly admitted to finding her comments “disappointing” but stopped there.
Recalling Ginsburg’s harsh initial comments about Kaepernick’s peaceful protest against racial injustice – and reading them through the lens of her pop culture persona as Notorious RBG – is not a call to cancel her posthumously. It is instead an opportunity for us to acknowledge the often unspoken boundaries of interracial political solidarity and to affirm the necessity for intergenerational and multiracial empathy within, among and between communities and leaders pursuing social justice.
T-shirts and paraphernalia that transposed Justice Ginsburg’s sage face, framed by her trademark jabot, beneath a tilted crown like the one originally worn by Wallace in his “King of New York” photo shoot three days before his murder in 1997, helped – alongside of a documentary, feature film, books and essays and op-eds – turn Justice Ginsburg into a multigenerational and multiracial feminist icon.
Justice Ginsburg, through a rhetorical sleight of hand that she did not initiate, managed to gain access to all of the cool, hipness and lure of Blackness absent the exposure of racist terror, arrest, violence, and punishment.
Since her death, pictures of a smiling Ginsburg embracing President Barack Obama during State of the Union speeches have, through symbolism, further underscored the fraught and sometimes disrupted connection between struggles for racial and gender justice that continue in our own time.
These blinders were made all the more unfortunately ironic because of the nickname that will outlive her. That appellation “Notorious RBG” evoked the lyrical genius of Wallace, a former drug dealer turned rap artist – whose ability to distill the joy and trauma of growing up poor and Black in Brooklyn during the Reagan era continues to galvanize generations of music lovers.
The “Notorious BIG” represented to many White Americans during the 1990s, the specter of the “superpredator” – the literal heart of darkness of America’s racial underclass they believed was destined to wreak havoc on suburbs if not immediately arrested, incarcerated, punished or prematurely killed. Wallace, affectionately known in the hip hop community as “Biggie,” rapped with an unflinching awareness of how his lyrical depiction of racism, crime, violence and the pursuit of success would be perceived by White audiences.
That the scowling image of Wallace, adorned with a crown over his obsidian face, could be improbably transposed onto Justice Ginsburg in a manner that made her cool, fashionable, and popular without the danger associated with hip hop culture is, in some ways, unsurprising. In so doing the Notorious RBG became a millennial generation social justice icon, the object of intergenerational admiration that helped to give a human face to complex social justice issues decided at the nation’s highest court.
But there was also an act of appropriation in this naming. The Notorious RBG reached the hearts and minds of millions of young people on a scale that Associate Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg perhaps never could, despite her enviable educational pedigree and brilliant legal mind. The name gifted her with a mainstream version of the street swagger that helped make Christopher Wallace an icon whose premature death from a gangland style killing in 1997 helped to burn his image into legend.
While the appellation wasn’t at all the only contributing factor to her iconic status – which was further solidified time and again by fiery dissents in cases like Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. and Burwell v. Hobby Lobby – in some ways, her persona as Notorious RBG and her stature on the bench mutually reinforced each other to propel her further into a cultural legend. For many Americans, especially younger ones, their admiration for the substance of Ginsburg’s ferocity and toughness as a jurist found a relatable outlet for expression through her status as Notorious RBG.
At her empathetic best Justice Ginsburg recognized herself and the rough road she faced toward breaking barriers to become the first female tenured professor at Columbia University Law School and the second female justice on the Supreme Court in the stories, lives, and struggles of others. And her championing of justice for women did positively affect women of color. Yet race, as it often does in American history, represents perhaps the barrier that’s hardest to see and easiest to ignore. Justice Ginsburg’s ambivalent response to Kaepernick’s protest illustrates the ongoing need for greater racial empathy – wide and deep enough to become political solidarity.
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Imagine a world wherein White women with power, future RBGs if you will, not only recognize the dignity and effervescent humanity in Martin Luther King Jr.’s march from Selma to Montgomery (as Ginsburg did in her powerful dissent in Shelby), but also see their own faces in the young Black women and men who have led demonstrations across the nation in search of the kind of justice that propelled a daughter of Jewish immigrants born in Brooklyn during the Great Depression into becoming a feminist icon.