The term social justice has become almost a cliche, so it can be hard to step back and ask what it actually means. One way to read it is as an attempt to include “social issues” within the sphere of justice. Another way, which I think is more interesting and productive, is as an attempt to think of justice itself differently.
Conventional notions of justice are deeply individualistic. They are about individual guilt and the punishment that accrues to it. That individualistic sense of justice seems to be behind the objections to my claim that all white Americans are complicit with slavery. Many of them point out that in criminal law, complicity is a very narrowly defined concept that could not possibly incorporate crimes committed before one was born. This is true, because criminal law is overwhelmingly individualistic in its approach — hence the difficulty it has had in prosecuting things like organized crime.
Within their individualistic framework, it sounds like I am calling for some kind of collective punishment for the sins of one’s ancestors. That’s why I reached for “committing mass suicide” as a sarcastic response — from the individualistic perspective, which is centered on guilt and punishment, that’s the reductio ad absurdam of my claim. It’s likely that if I had chosen to engage in dialogue rather than gotten impatient, one of my interlocutors would have volunteered the “mass suicide” consequence themselves. I decided to head them off at the pass, which in retrospect was a bad choice.
In any case, a more social concept of justice recognizes that individual choices are not the only relevant factors. We all move within social systems that we did not choose and that we cannot significantly change through individual effort alone. One of the most powerful systems is that of race, which in America grows directly out of the experience of slavery. People of “white” races may have been enslaved in the past, but the fact that they are now recognized as “white” means that the disadvantage that might have accrued from that history is no longer very relevant. The consequences of the enslavement of Africans in America, by contrast, are ongoing and massively relevant. Every white person benefits to some degree from the differential treatment of blacks. Sometimes, as in cases of extreme poverty or social marginalization, that benefit is negligible. In most cases, however, it is significant, constituting advantages in wealth, education, social status, and vulnerability to police violence.
The individualistic model of justice has a hard time dealing with that form of complicity. It results in frustrated questions about what the individual can or should do — or dismissive rhetorical questions about what the person pointing out the social injustice has individually done. The underlying assumption, that it is impossible for any one individual to change such social systems, is true. What is not true, from a social justice perspective, is that such systems are therefore morally irrelevant. Systems can be changed through collective action, and complicity with social injustice creates an obligation to join into that collective action in some way. It means that black problems, for instance, are not only black problems — they are white problems, too. Blacks should take the lead in defining what it would mean to solve them, but whites also have a moral responsibility to help them reach their goal.
Several of my new interlocutors have objected that if we’re complicit in slavery, that also means that we’re complicit in all other ongoing injustices. Again, from the individualistic standpoint, this is a reductio ad absurdam — if we’re responsible for everything, we’re responsible for nothing. But from a social justice perspective, that is no counter-argument: it’s the whole point. Absolute individual moral purity is not available to any of us given the unjust social systems that shape our lives. That means that individual moral purity is also not a relevant point of reference. If it were the standard, then we would once again be on the road to mass suicide as the only possible response. In a social model of justice that is not focused primarily on individual guilt and punishment, however, the point is not to condemn people to deprivation and death — it is to find ways to live together.