Social justice is a very significant matter for America. Today I had a friend I disagreed with about whether it is even real, and then happened to watch an innovative and compelling show called American Race, hosted by provocateur and thinker, Charles Barkley. There are many considerations when it comes to the interesting and significant topic of social justice: what is it? Is it real? How does it relate to race, institutionalized racism, class, capitalism, poverty, and class issues? What are America’s racial problems now, what are the true facts about our history, and can we make greater social progress going forward?
What is it? Social justice is, according to SociologyGuide.com, a type of justice (typically justice refers to either distributive justice [who gets what in society] or retributive justice [punishment for crimes]. “Social justice is also used to refer to the overall fairness of a society in its divisions and distributions of rewards and burdens and, as such, the phrase has been adopted by political parties with a redistributive agenda. Social Justice derives its authority from the codes of morality prevailing in each culture.” I suggest visiting the page because it is a very complete look at the topic.
Note that it has been significantly influenced by the inimitable moral philosopher, John Rawls, primarily in his seminal work, A Theory of Justice. In a word, the concept refers to whether society is fair, and to what degree. When black Americans say something like “This society is racist,” they are basically referring to the fact that society [social] is not fair [just]. Here are Rawls’ words:
The natural distribution is neither just nor unjust; nor is it unjust that men are born into society at some particular position. These are simply natural facts. What is just and unjust is the way that institutions deal with these facts.
Is social justice real? Yes, I think it is. I know that some people – white people, and capitalists, exclusively – don’t think that it is a legitimate concept because it affords folks a chance to “sit around and complain about what they don’t have instead of getting up and working for it” (my characterization of their point of view). Here is a reference for the perspective of the naysayers. Though I do get that many humans can be lazy and try to take the easy way out – perhaps especially ethnic minorities who have gotten short shrift for centuries now – I also get that someone can “bootstrap” their way to achieving educational or economic success. Bordering on the Horatio Alger Myth, though, one can easily see how institutionalized racism, a very classist society, and the perception some white people have that they themselves are now drawing the short straw, can combine into a depressing situation that feels very sticky and which will certainly deter success. Try being a black man raised in Baltimore, MD who has been to jail three times for drug offenses (and beaten by the cops twice, and who has had his car seized and sold) – that will make you see how pernicious a lack of social justice can be, and how one can develop a sense of learned helplessness. And, according to the naysayers, expect a “handout.” Try taking the sociological perspective, and empathy can open up. To answer the question I began this paragraph with: yes, it is real. It takes a bit of imagination and education to see, but I don’t doubt that it exists. It’s almost Orwellian to say that it does not. Very Ayn-Randian.
Typically, you don’t see much of an attempt on the part of the white majority, the political elites, or business interests to dig up the past and try to make amends. Or really even apologize. To date, there has never been an American version of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that South Africa instituted following its own version of a racist society: apartheid. An apology for a long-buried wrong against persons pretty much for the color of their skin – such as this story – is fairly rare. Tuskegee Experiment and slavery and “redlining” came and went (well, actually, redlining isn’t dead) and little is done about it to make amends. To seek justice.
The black-white rift stands at the very center of American history. It is the great challenge to which all of our deepest aspirations to freedom must rise. If we forget the great stain of slavery that stands at the heart of our country, our history, our experiment, then we forget who we are, and we make the great rift deeper and wider. ~ filmmaker Ken Burns
Pioneering sociologist James W. Loewen studied twelve American high school textbooks and put out a bombshell of a book, Lies My Teacher Told Me. In it is written: “Perhaps the most pervasive theme in our history is the domination of black America by white America. Race is the sharpest and deepest division in American life. Issues of black-white relations propelled the Whig Party to collapse, prompted the formation of the Republican Party, and caused the Democratic Party to label itself the ‘white man’s party’ for almost a century. …Senators mounted the longest filibuster in U.S. history, more than 534 hours, to oppose the 1964 Civil Rights bill. …Race still affects politics, as evidenced by the notorious Willie Horton commercial used by George Bush in the 1988 presidential campaign…Race riots continue to shake urban centers from Miami to Los Angeles. Almost no genre of our popular culture goes untouched by race.” Spaniards brought Africans to the shores of South Carolina almost 500 years ago, now, and America has “repeatedly been torn apart and sometimes bound together by this issue of black-white relations” (Loewen). Indeed, interviewer and author extraordinaire Studs Terkel notes that race is an “American obsession.” Here is an article about Barkley talking race – and not without offending quite a few black people – in Baltimore based on his investigation of the murder of Freddie Gray. No, things are not at the point that we can call America “post-racial” or “socially just.” I don’t think we’ve really fully apologized for slavery, let alone considered reparations for it. It might not be a bad idea to do either, or both. Should we really go further to make racism up to Japanese-Americans than to African-Americans? Social justice is within our reach, but we aren’t really trying that hard to make strides toward it.
As public gestures, official apologies can help bind up the wounds of the past and provide a basis for moral and political reconciliation. Reparations and other forms of financial restitution can be justified on similar grounds, as tangible expressions of apology and atonement. They can also help alleviate the effects of the injustice on the victims or their heirs” ~ Michael J. Sandel
Racism has been hidden, obfuscated, denied, whitewashed, mistreated, manipulated, and eschewed by the majority race as much as possible – including our history textbooks. “We wish fervently to believe that America was founded on and has lived by ideals of social justice. In that effort, we expend great amounts of psychological energy trying to ignore a national history of eager exploitation of those on the bottom, no matter who they are,” wrote legal scholar and professorHistory is extremely important, and as Robert L. Lloyd noted, “Civics is nonexistent and history is twisted in every school.” He also pointed out that this lack of proper history education of the young is “pretty much why we keep making the same mistakes over and over.”
Sounds about right to me. Children who take history or social studies are put through boring lectures, outright misleading textbooks, pressure by the politically-minded and majority-race parents toward principals and districts, underprepared and underpaid teachers, and as in my wife’s case, simmering racial tension in her diverse Southern town growing up. She notes: “It was extremely evident that I was white, and the black kids in my high school frequently brought it to my attention, as in ‘Get out of my way you white bitch!’ and the like.” She was a sweet kid I have no doubt, and was bullied, basically, because she was white (in relation to a restive minority group – this benighted town in South Carolina was 60% black). When I hear stories like that, it feels to me that the kids were trying to enact a vengeful, misguided type of social justice. Like anger and relative power masqueraded as equality.
Worst in the country in education (and more): Mississippi. That is saying a lot considering the U.S. has disappointing rankings for many things, such as incarceration, education, and healthcare/health outcomes. If you’re a 60-year-old black man in Mississippi, I would highly suggest you get your affairs in order, basically. Shockingly, the life expectancy in Washington, D.C. shows a 13-year difference just based on race. Whoa. Racism and its modern effects on social justice was and is not a peculiarly Southern phenomenon; “the first colony to legalize slavery was not Virginia, but Massachusetts,” Loewen informs us. However, make no mistake, the South has more of a racist history and has greater problems now than other areas, by and large (the picture associated with this blog was me standing next to a civil rights marker on King Street in Charleston, SC – slave capital of the South – commemorating a significant lunch counter sit-in in the 1960s). Not the least of which is the rankings of Southern states in education, today.
From the Freedom Rides to Woodrow Wilson, Indians to the KKK, and Plessy v. Ferguson to Jackie Robinson, America has a blighted past. Conservatives who believe that things are different now, and that hard work pays off and that the reason people are poor or unsuccessful is not because of systemic reasons but due to lack of initiative, intelligence, or ingenuity are kidding themselves. Those who promulgate such mis/disinformation are dishonorable and blameworthy. Loewen notes that:
Slavery’s twin legacies to the present are the social and economic inferiority it conferred upon blacks and the cultural racism it instilled in whites. Both continue to haunt our society. Therefore, treating slavery’s enduring legacy is necessarily controversial. Unlike slavery, racism is not over yet.
Hence the shoddy and irresponsible treatment of issues such as racism by history textbooks: they have a role to play in America, a function to serve, and (spoiler alert): It is more about cheerleading, patriotism, and propaganda than it is about the provision of true historical facts. Since “people do not automatically discriminate against each other on the basis of skin color,” says Loewen, it is noxious when prejudice, racism, and discrimination are fomented. Yet it is easy to manipulate people into behaving badly: take the Robber’s Cave experiment or Jane Elliot’s noteworthy experiments using eye color as the discriminating factor in Iowa classrooms, made famous by her book A Class Divided. The ultimate example of how institutions, groups, and forces in society can be pernicious when it comes to the lives of everyday individuals must be the Stanford Prison Study.
Clearly, African Americans have a harder time of it in society, as this Wikipedia page demonstrates. Think things have gotten better? Think again. White readers ask yourself this: if God asked you if, based on what you know now, would you rather be white or black, no one in their right mind would choose black. I’m sorry, they wouldn’t. The only real advantage is protection from skin cancer. The rest is either equal or African Americans have it much worse. Consider the relationship blacks have to the criminal justice system – a serious issue now that Jeff Sessions is the Attorney General of the United States, Trump has divided the populace more than they previously were, and 1-3 Supreme Court justices will likely be confirmed in the next 3.5 years (potentially setting back racial, economic, and criminal justice progress in this country for decades to come). There is no valid reason why blacks should be incarcerated like they are; we put more people in prison now than any other industrialized country – including China and Russia. It’s appalling. Considering how it ruins the chances for employment and civic privileges (e.g., voting, housing, etc.) it is truly a gross holdover from slavery, segregation, and Jim Crow. Here conservative blogger Nate Silver indicates how systemic factors in policing lead to an outrageous disparity in deaths at the hands of law enforcement officers.
All of this is inextricably tied to economics, class, and socioeconomics. As this page published by the American Psychological Association indicates, there are some significant effects, indeed. I will quote the findings at length because of their import and salience:
SES and race and ethnicity are intimately intertwined. Research has shown that race and ethnicity in terms of stratification often determine a person’s socioeconomic status (House & Williams, 2000). Furthermore, communities are often segregated by SES, race, and ethnicity. These communities commonly share characteristics of developing nations: low economic development, poor health conditions, and low levels of educational attainment. Low SES has consistently been implicated as a risk factor for many of the problems that plague communities. Seeking protective factors to minimize these risks, researchers have reviewed literature that highlights the resilience of persons overcoming social challenges associated with skewed distribution of resources (Corcoran & Nichols-Casebolt, 2004). It is important to understand that continually skewed distributions breed conditions that ultimately affect our entire society. Thus, society benefits from an increased focus on the foundations of socioeconomic inequities and its correlates, such as racial and ethnic discrimination and efforts to reduce the deep gaps in socioeconomic status in the United States and abroad.
However, despite this dismal past, progress has been made. No doubt about it. We started at the nadir – legalized slavery that persisted for half our history – but have made slow progress (well, in fits and starts is more like it). Here is Loewen on this topic discussing an interesting phenomenon: antiracism:
“Antiracism is one of America’s great gifts to the world. Its relevance extends far beyond race relations. Antiracism led to a ‘new birth of freedom’ after the Civil War, and not only for African Americans. Twice, once in each century, the movement for black civil rights triggered the movement for women’s rights. Twice it reinvigorated our democratic spirit, which had been atrophying. Throughout the world, from South Africa to Northern Ireland, movements of oppressed people continue to use tactics and words borrowed from our abolitionist and civil rights movements. The clandestine early meetings of anticommunists in East Germany were marked by singing ‘We Shall Overcome.’ Iranians used nonviolent methods borrowed from Thoreau and Martin Luther King, Jr. to overthrow their hated shah. On Ho Chi Minh’s desk in Hanoi the day he died lay a biography of John Brown.”
The struggle for racial justice has been hard-fought by persons of all races and ethnicities – immigrants and WASPs included to some degree – and “many rivers have been crossed.” Here is a great video series by a professor on how racism toward African Americans has worked, including the low and the high points. And the following is what former President Obama had to say about the issue of racism (and, I think, social justice):
I always tell young people in particular: ‘Do not say that nothing’s changed when it comes to race in America — unless you’ve lived through being a black man in the 1950s, or ’60s, or ’70s. It is incontrovertible that race relations have improved significantly during my lifetime and yours, and that opportunities have opened up, and that attitudes have changed. That is a fact. What is also true is that the legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, discrimination in almost every institution of our lives — you know, that casts a long shadow. And that’s still part of our DNA that’s passed on. We’re not cured of it.’
Say what you want about the man’s politics (and I do!), he certainly knows what is up when it comes to being black (indeed, mixed-race) in a country founded on racism, but which has made great strides and come a long way. We have. We just have a ways to go, and as this Post opinion piece claims, we’re not doing so well as of late. Bob Herbert, the erudite New York Times opinion writer, has this to add: “I have no patience with those who want to pretend that racism is not an out-and-out big deal in the United States, as it always has been. We may have made progress, and we may have a black president, but the scourge is still with us.”
Here is philosopher Michael Boylan framing the challenges one has in assessing another’s situation – let alone every member of a group‘s situations:
…is my opinion that many people break the law based on this sort of logic: they see that the general will is unfair to them. This unfairness may be true or false. Many people are, in fact, the victims of some sort of cruel machine of repression that they do not deserve. However, it is also true that many people are unable or unwilling to admit that they themselves are the cause of their misfortunes.
One of the things those of us who didn’t support Trump for president lament is that his demagoguery and race-baiting has really set America back. Social justice seems to have taken a back seat the day that Clinton pushed Sanders out. There are many authoritarian, disenfranchised, not-so-smart, cocksure, quasi-racist and fully-racist white Americans who are blaming blacks, liberals, and Hispanic immigrants for issues that are really primarily economic and demographic in nature – and chimerical for the most part. To my fellow white people, please realize that blacks aren’t the cause of America’s problems (and neither are Mexicans or Mexican-Americans or Islamic-Americans). The percentage of African Americans who are lazy, entitled cheaters who “milk the system” is a drop in America’s bucket of issues and crises. Remember, there are more white people receiving “welfare” than black. Our problems didn’t abate when AFDC was cut back by the Republicans and Clinton, were they? Yes, in 2014 there were almost 50 million Americans receiving food stamps (which is not economically significant, incidentally), but does that not have more to do with major economic forces such as unemployment and outsourcing than laziness? This article shows some of the details around race and welfare. Remember, just because many African Americans are poor, poorly educated, un/underemployed, unhealthy, or angry does not mean that there is something wrong with them; it could (and indeed mostly does) implicate the system. Things have been getting harder for every demographic except for the wealthy, and it is by sleight of hand that the owning class makes the other classes feel that each is the others’ true nemesis. It’s only going to get harder and harder to make America the country we want when white people become ethnic minorities (in the next 30-40 years), outsourcing and automation grow, and so on. We must clean up politics NOW, improve fundamental economic trends, and deal with racism starting yesterday if we want to be morally upstanding – and have a society that isn’t in a state of dystopia. There is no guarantee that America will be a civilization that progresses, thrives, and evolves, and so we need to take what steps we can now to get our house in order. Social justice is low-hanging fruit.
I welcome you to look up quotations on justice here. Type in the words race, racism, class, economics, social justice, justice, or the like. Go to town!