On Friday in Washington D.C., Ruth Bader Ginsburg spoke at a naturalization ceremony for 31 newly sworn-in American citizens. The Supreme Court justice and progressive icon expressed optimism and hope for America — but was also honest about the country's past and current shortcomings, and urged the new citizens to play a role in building a better life for future generations.
"Though we have made huge progress, the work of perfection is scarcely done," Ginsburg said at the event, which took place in the rotunda of the National Archives. "Many stains remain. In this rich land, nearly a quarter of our children live in poverty, nearly half of our citizens do not vote, and we still struggle to achieve greater understanding and appreciation of each other across racial, religious and socioeconomic lines."
Ginsburg noted that America was discriminatory, undemocratic and downright oppressive at its founding, and that only over centuries has it made strides towards equality. Quoting French political theorist Alexis de Tocqueville, the 85-year-old justice said that America's strength "lies not in being more enlightened than other nations, but rather in her ability to repair her faults."
"The original Constitution permitted slavery and severely limited who counted among we the people when the nation was new," Ginsburg said. "Only white property-owning men had the right to vote — the most basic right of citizenship. But over the course of our history, people left out at the beginning — people held in human bondage, native Americans, and half the population, women — came to be embraced as full citizens."
This wasn't the first time Ginsburg spoke at a naturalization ceremony. She did so in April as well, and it was her idea: Ginsburg told the New York Times that she'd written to the New-York Historical Society, where that event was held, and told organizers that "if ever I am in town when they had a naturalization ceremony, I would be glad to participate." According to the New York Times, this is believed to be the first time a sitting Supreme Court justice had given a speech at a ceremony like this in America.
On Friday, Ginsburg touched on many of the same themes as in her April speech. She highlighted the opportunities America affords its citizens, using her own family's story as an example — and, likewise, stressed the obligations that citizens have to make America a better place.
"My own father arrived in this land at age 13 with no fortune and speaking no English," Ginsburg said. "My mother was born four months after her parents — with several children in tow — came by ship to Ellis Island. My father and my grandparents reached, as you do, for the American dream," Ginsburg said. "What is the difference between a bookkeeper in New York City's Garment District and a Supreme Court Justice? One generation."
As for how the 31 new American citizens she addressed can help build "a more perfect union," Ginsburg was crystal clear in her advice.
"As well-informed new citizens, you will play your part, a vital part in that endeavor — by first and foremost voting in elections," she said.