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Rapson: Justice Ginsburg’s passing is a renewed clarion call for enlarging the circles of inclusion

From the President

Kresge President Rip Rapson has been writing daily notes to the staff during the COVID-19 pandemic as we continue to work from home. We are sharing a selection of these letters that touch on current events and issues relevant to these unprecedented times.

The beauty of the tributes to Ruth Bader Ginsburg that appeared over the weekend make anything I would say about her inspiring biography, her contributions to the jurisprudence of liberty and justice, her legacy as a pioneering feminist, superfluous. I nevertheless wanted to offer three reflections that I think have bearing on our work at Kresge.

First, the imperative of articulating principles that are being called into question, or obscured, by louder voices. Justice Ginsburg’s service on the Supreme Court will be remembered for her incisive, even searing, dissents to majority opinions. She committed her life to the Constitution, the rule of law and the institutions designed to protect them both. When those came under attack, she didn’t flinch from the responsibility of articulating an alternative view.

We too, as an institution and as individuals, need to use our voice to clarify and fortify the principles that guide our work. It is one of many reasons we should all be proud of the full unity of view that the Board and staff hold about the imperatives of pursing racial equity and justice.

Second, the folly of confusing courtesy, kindness and grace with weakness. The insidiousness of seeing strength in bluster, insult and invective has long been a distasteful dimension of public life. Justice Ginsburg was the nearly-perfect antidote. Her apparent fragility was limited to her teeny frame, her soft-spokenness, her frailty occasioned by bouts of cancers.

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Her toughness came from a very different place – razor-sharp intellect, deep command of history, steel-like perseverance in the face of physical hardship. One of the many t-shirt tributes to her read “Not fragile like a flower, fragile like a bomb.”

It’s going to be important to keep that in mind as our political season gets, incomprehensibly, even more filled with expressions of domineering bombast. If we as a nation are to get serious about creating a civic life capable of bridging across difference, the soft influences that emanate from quality of character still matter, no matter how many times people try to dismiss or diminish or divert us from them.

Third, the moral power of wise and principled constancy. Ralph Waldo Emerson stated that “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” It is equally true that a wise consistency is the virtue of superior ones. Like Justice William O. Douglas’ before her, Justice Ginsburg’s intellectual signature was unmistakable, its moral tone unequivocable. Participating in thousands of legal arguments and case decisions, her values system spanned the political norms and situational complexities of six decades. She absorbed those changing circumstances and developed a nuanced understanding of how her values and worldview had to adapt. But they were rooted firmly in a wisdom and decency born of her Jewish faith, her ethical clarity, her intellectual acuity, and her unshakeable embrace of the common good.

At her confirmation hearing in 1993, Justice Ginsburg captured this precisely. She noted that the Constitution had been written for a handful of white male property owners. She suggested that the nation’s history had, however slowly and incrementally, expanded to become more inclusive – through amendments, historical movements, and judicial interpretation – for Blacks, women, LGBTQ people, and others. She told the Senators, simply and directly, that she wanted to enlarge the circles of inclusion further – to ensure that our country became fairer, and justice ever-more-expansive.

I so wish we could believe that those currently serving our country could honor that lesson in the coming months. But, of course, the prospects don’t seem good. We’ll rush to appoint a new Justice before the clock runs out. Inconsistent? Completely. Foolish? Not if you don’t care particularly for the long-term damage an action like that does to the legitimacy of an essential pillar of our democracy.

So, we’ll have to honor Justice Ginsburg’s legacy in other ways. Re-weaving our nation’s moral fabric won’t be an exercise in trickle-down, but will instead be the result of steadfast intentionality in our families, our neighborhoods, our workplaces. It’s already happening. Justice Ginsburg’s passing is simply a renewed clarion call.

Follow Kresge President & CEO Rip Rapson on Twitter at @RipRapson