The path to social justice is fundamentally controversial because it raises issues, ideological and otherwise, that question or debate notions of equity, equality, fairness, and justice itself. Advocates or proponents of “intervention” argue that because institutions and policies establish and maintain social, political, and economic inequality, they also represent the route to achieving social justice or the common good through the equalization of goods and services.
For example, the Green Party, or “leftists” more generally, declare that government must be responsive to injustice by eliminating discrimination, racism, and free-market competition. They believe that government should focus on providing all humans with “basic needs” and a “fair” market system. They further elaborate that in order to accomplish such Herculean tasks of social justice, issues of access, poverty, racism, labor division, and inadequate health care need to be addressed.
Opponents or supporters of “nonintervention” argue that social justice cannot be achieved through social engineering and a redistribution of goods and services for all. They argue that government should not be in the business of social intervention, as regulation and control alter at best surface issues do not in fact change the deeper-rooted issues associated with society’s ills, and interfere with the “free” market system. Left to its own devices, “conservatives” contend that the free market would solve many problems of inequality because capitalism rewards innovation and hard work. This argument further holds that those disadvantaged by capitalism are unwilling to imitate Horatio Alger and that is the reason they suffer in a system that breeds abundance.
II. Controversies Surrounding Social Justice
III. Legal Decisions
IV. Redistributive and Recognition Theories
Advocates of social justice are active in voicing their concerns about the unequal distribution of services and goods in society. Although labeled leftists, social justice activists seek to provide quality and equality of life services and goods by campaigning to close the gap between the rich and poor, eliminate hunger and unemployment through such means as providing health care for all, and diminish the social barriers in society that lead to these ills. Still others claim that the only means of achieving social justice would be through the redistribution of income and quasi-control of supply and demand (Ferree 1997).
It is these invisible barriers that prevent society from achieving a utopian state, where all people are treated equally in every aspect of life. Furthermore, these same barriers have been constructed by society to divide and categorize people based on a common set of characteristics, such as class, social stratification, and the division of labor. Additionally, we find that such divisions exist across all of society’s institutions, including education, health care, and welfare systems to name a few. Common among these institutions are lateral levels of class stratification according to income and race.
Social justice is typically conceived in two forms, where one end of the spectrum claims that actions must be taken in order to eliminate the ills of society and the other end accepts no preconceived notions in studying those same ills. The first group claims that areas like poverty, division of labor, and homelessness are the underlying causes of social injustice. The latter group studies those areas, claims the importance of doing so, and takes a neutral position. Moreover, social justice has been based on redistributive and recognition theories toward achieving social justice.
Based on the teachings of Thomas Aquinas, the term social justice was coined by Luigi Taparelli, an Italian Catholic priest, in his book, published between 1840 and 1843, Theoretical Treatise on Natural Law Based on Fact, although others studied the components of social justice before him (Behr 2005). Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274), known as the Doctor Universalis, based his claims on natural theology, in which morality, based on religion, ought to be sought after by all people, who, under God, must adhere to their moral beliefs in doing what is right. This reflected the Christian view that under God’s watch, people were to be just and moral in society. He promulgated the idea that justice should not be forced onto humankind but rather felt as the responsibility of the individual based on the rules or laws of Christian religion and the adherence to God’s judgment.
Luigi Taparelli came to his theoretical interpretations by examining the levels to which society had been affected and changed by the Industrial Revolution. For one, he believed that the mass migration to the city factories, the design of the wage-laborer, and competition in the marketplace led to the injustices that later formed in society—for instance, the division of the poor and the rich, the competition for jobs and employees, and the turnover of self-employed farmers and peasants to the division of labor and class stratification. At the same time, people were disengaging themselves from the Church and the associated fear of God and engaging in immoral behaviors and manners that contributed largely to the formation of society’s ills. Taparelli wanted to create a unified society and used this as his framework of study.
The late Father William J. Ferree, a second great thinker of the social justice movement, wrote “The Act of Social Justice” in 1948, characterizing social justice as a moral duty that obliged each person in society to care for the common good of all (Ferree 1997). According to Kurland, Father Ferree defined the common good as “the network of customs, laws, social organizations—that is, our institutions—that make up the social order and largely determine the quality of culture” (Ferree 1997).
Controversies Surrounding Social Justice
The commitment to social justice has come under attack in several key areas, such as voting, the increasing gap between the rich and the poor, racial profiling, affirmative action, disproportionate incarceration of minorities, and inequitable funding for inner-city schools. Each area mentioned has brought on its own set of unique problems and issues.
The concerns about voting centers in the 2000 presidential election, which reappeared in the 2004 presidential elections, have been heavily debated. Besides the problems with the “hanging chads,” hundreds of thousands of felons from Florida were disenfranchised in the 2000 election, which tilted the elections to George W. Bush in 2000. In 2004, Ohio had similar problems and the results were the same, the election was tilted in President Bush’s favor as a result of these breaches of social justice. On the other hand, advocates of disenfranchisement contend that felons should not be able to vote and that if people cannot cast a vote correctly, they do not deserve to vote.
Economic inequality has continued to grow, and the latter part of the 20th century, which has been characterized as the most economically prosperous period in U.S. history, has not reversed the gap between the rich and poor. The gap actually widened and the living standards of laborers went from bad to worse during this prosperous period. Issues such as poverty, hunger, and homelessness increased and proved extremely challenging to solve. Sadly, the gap between the rich and poor in the United States grew at the same pace as economic growth. However, proponents of capitalism assert that this inequality could be ameliorated if the poor would take advantages of the opportunities that a wealthy country such as America offers.
Racial profiling has also been a persistent problem that has mostly plagued African American males. The problem is so bad that the neologism “driving while black” has been added to the American vernacular. Furthermore, these stops have been characterized as pretextual stops; that is, the police stop minorities on minor traffic violations in hopes that they will find drugs. Critics contend that these stops are unconstitutional. Proponents of profiling assert that, since minorities are disproportionately the ones found to be in possession of drugs, it is good policing to stop them disproportionately.
Another contentious social justice issue is affirmative action, which seeks to redress inequality in employment and educational opportunity. This issue has been extremely contentious, as it concerns educational admissions and funding. The complaint against affirmative action is that it is a form of reverse discrimination and is no longer needed because we live in a color-blind society. People should not obtain an advantage because of their race. On the other hand, proponents of affirmative action aver that if schools were funded equally and racism was not a part of America’s core, there would be no need for initiatives like affirmative action.
Still another contentious issue with social justice ramifications is the disproportionate incarceration of African Americans and Latinos. Compared with their presence in the population overall, critics contend that criminal justice policy is as racist as it was in the past. For instance, they point out that the prison system comprised white men only prior to the emancipation of black slaves. Once the slaves were freed, the prison system became majority black, and the same diabolical practices are prevalent today. However, if blacks commit crimes, why should they not be incarcerated more than whites? It should not matter whether they are disproportionately incarcerated if they have committed a crime, critics argue.
Finally, the debate in respect to educational funding has been just as bitter as the other debates surrounding social justice, along with the perceived inequality that permeates the American system. For example, critics consider the strategy of using property taxes to fund schools as unfair and discriminatory, especially in view of the fact that the gap between rich and poor continues to grow. A system such as this cannot be the way we fund our schools, opponents of this practice avow. But why should the wealthy be penalized for being able to fund their schools and have money diverted from their districts to poorer districts? Advocates of the current funding system contend that their rights are abridged as well when this practice occurs.
In sum, there are a plethora of social justice issues that could be discussed here, but the ones mentioned are the ones that continue to plague society currently and appear to be the most contentious ones. The issues also threaten to divide the country along the lines of race, class, and social status; that is why they are addressed here.
The Help American Vote Act of 2002 was passed to address the voting irregularities that took place in the 2000 presidential elections. The act’s main focus is to “assist in the administration of Federal elections and to otherwise provide assistance with the administration of certain Federal election laws and programs, to establish minimum election administration standards for States and units of local government with responsibility for the administration of Federal elections, and for other purposes” (Help America Vote Act 2007).
The act does not address felony disenfranchisement. There have been several challenges to felony disenfranchisement, and for the most part, they have been unsuccessful. In Richardson v. Ramirez (1974), the “Supreme Court held that Section Two of the amendment amounted to an ‘affirmative sanction’ of felon disenfranchisement” (Uggen, Behrens, and Manza 2005). Since the Ramirez case, however, most lawsuits involving felony disenfranchisement have been unsuccessful. For instance, in the Farrakhan v. Washington (2003) disenfranchisement case, the plaintiff applied the Voting Rights Act to challenge felony disenfranchisement, but to no avail. Lately this seems to be the pattern, especially as courts have become more conservative.
On the racial profiling issue, an international human rights tribunal filed the first ever legal challenge to racial profiling and the application was submitted to the United Nations Human Rights Committee with the intended purpose of halting racial profiling by police. This lawsuit was filed against Spain, and on the American front the End Racial Profiling Act of 2004 still has not passed and is unlikely to pass especially since the attacks of September 11, 2001. Furthermore, racial profiling does not just occur in traffic stops; juries also are subject to racial profiling. It is alleged that African Americans are more lenient on each other and prosecutors use preemptory challenges more often on blacks than on whites.
There have been several challenges to affirmative action on many fronts, but the one making the most noise is in the area of admission policies. In the Gratz and Hamacher / Grutter v. the Regents of the University of Michigan lawsuit, it was alleged that the University of Michigan accords unlawful preference to minorities in the undergraduate admissions process. Hopwood v. Texas in 1992 brought suit against the University of Texas law school on the same basis. California has also had challenges to its admission process based on reverse discrimination claims because of affirmative action policies in its admissions process.
On the educational funding issue, Ohio, New Jersey, and Texas, to name a few, have been cited as discriminatory in the way they fund their school systems. In 1997, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled that the way Ohio funded its schools was unconstitutional. To date, nothing has been done to adhere to the court’s ruling. In New Jersey, the Supreme Court ruled that Abbott districts were inadequate and unconstitutional. The Court in Abbott II and in subsequent rulings, ordered the state to assure that these children receive an adequate education through implementation of a comprehensive set of programs and reforms (Abbott v. Burk 1997).
As people continue to compete for scare resources and opportunities, impacted by globalization and structural adjustments to the economy, the likelihood that these controversies will be solved in the near future appears dim in some respects, but Americans are known for innovation.
Redistributive and Recognition Theories
Many argue that social justice can be achieved through the combination of the redistributive and recognition theories. Although both theories examine society’s ills and injustices as problems that ought to be corrected, each theory puts forward varying strategies toward curing those ailments. The redistributive theory places emphasis on the economic framework of society as the vital factor in determining society’s distribution of goods (Fraser 1998). For example, redistributive theorists argue for the need of a standard of living wage. This would increase family income, provide a better standard of life and care, and overall aid in the mobility of lower-socioeconomic-status families, thus creating a more balanced economy and society. Redistribution taken in a political sense is often based on socioeconomic status and relies on the economy to cure society’s injustices. As noted by Fraser (1996), “The politics of redistribution encompasses not only class-centered orientations, such as New Deal liberalism, social democracy and socialism, but also those forms of feminism and anti-racism that look to socioeconomic transformation or reform as the remedy for gender and racial-ethnic injustice.”
Although redistribution theorists view society’s economic framework, recognition theorists approach the problem with a varying lens. Recognition theory essentially determines society’s ailments and injustices as cultural phenomenon and evaluates them from this prism. It views culture as the determinant of social patterns, behaviors, and interpretations. One’s culture often heavily influences many facets of life, including how various cultures view one another, teaches generation upon generation certain biases, attitudes, and beliefs. In order to achieve a better society by use of recognition theory, a greater emphasis must be placed on valuing various cultures and also on deconstructing some of their long-held and often destructive beliefs. Redistribution theory aims to eliminate society’s existing economic structure; recognition theory aims to eliminate the existing cultural differences.
As politics becomes more polarized and money continues to drive the decision-making process, decisions will continue to be made from the top, which more than likely means that the wealth gap will continue to grow. Additionally, as globalization continues to restructure the economy and create more competition for wages, there will be less tolerance for programs like affirmative action and equalizing educational funding. Capitalism is in opposition to social justice, because social justice requires a commitment to providing a social safety net for the less fortunate, and that may mean that initiatives that equalize educational funding are an important component of any system committed to providing a social safety net. Moreover, redistributive theories are more likely to become unpopular as the economy contracts and competition becomes stiff er from globalization and the dollar’s weakening value.
Leila Sadeghi and Byron E. Price
- Abbott v. Burk IV 149 N.J. 145, 693 A2d 417 (1997).
- Adams, Maurianne et al., eds., Readings for Diversity and Social Justice, 2d ed. New York: Routledge, 2010.
- Arrigo, B., Social Justice/Criminal Justice: The Maturation of Critical Theory in Law, Crime, and Deviance. Contemporary Issues in Crime and Justice Series. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 1999.
- Behr, Thomas, “Luigi Taparelli and Social Justice: Rediscovering the Origins of a Hallowed Concept.” Social Justice in Context 1 (2005): 3–16.
- Brooks, Roy L., Racial Justice in the Age of Obama. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009.
- D’Souza, Eugene, ed., Crime and Social Justice: Society and Law Enforcement. New Delhi: Commonwealth, 2002.
- Ferree, William J., Introduction to Social Justice. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1997.
- Fraser, Nancy, “Social Justice in the Age of Identity Politics: Redistribution, Recognition, and Participation.” Tanner Lectures on Human Values. Vol. 19. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1998.
- Help America Vote Act. 2002. http://www.eac.gov/about_the_eac/help_america_vote_act.aspx
- Moore, David B., “Shame, Forgiveness, and Juvenile Justice.” Criminal Justice Ethics 12, no. 1 (Winter/Spring 1993): 3–26.
- Quinney, R., Bearing Witness to Crime and Social Justice. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2000.
- Schwartz, Martin D., and Suzanne E. Hatty, Controversies in Critical Criminology. Dayton, OH: Anderson, 2003.
- Soohoo, Catherine Albisa, and Martha F. Davis, eds., Bringing Human Rights Home. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2008.
- Uggen, Christopher, Angela Behrens, and Jeff Manza, “Criminal Disenfranchisement.” Annual Review of Law and Social Science 2 (2005): 233–254.
- Welch, M., “Critical Criminology, Social Justice, and an Alternative View of Incarceration.” Critical Criminology 7, no. 2 (September 1996): 43–58.