So­cial jus­tice: Prin­ci­pled or power-hun­gry lobby?

The Washington Times Weekly - - Culture, Etc. - BY BRAD­FORD RICHARD­SON

Protests over po­lice shoot­ings of black men. Out­rage over gen­der bias in busi­ness and gov­ern­ment. Panic over melt­ing ice caps and ris­ing sea lev­els. Demon­stra­tions against the “1 per­cent.”

Racism. Sex­ism. En­vi­ron­men­tal­ism. Clas­sism. What’s a so­cial jus­tice war­rior to do? Protest with­out end, ap­par­ently.

D’Artag­nan Scorza, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor and founder of the Los An­ge­les-based So­cial Jus­tice Learn­ing In­sti­tute, says the so­cial jus­tice move­ment aims to up­lift dif­fer­ent groups who have been stag­gered and stymied by the weight of his­tor­i­cal prej­u­dices, op­pres­sion, ex­clu­sion and other trans­gres­sions.

“So­cial jus­tice is an um­brella that en­com­passes a deeper de­sire for in­di­vid­u­als and com­mu­ni­ties to see in­jus­tices made right,” Mr. Scorza says. “That’s re­ally the goal.”

Yet the con­crete, ul­ti­mate goals of the so­cial jus­tice move­ment of­ten go un­heard amid the noise and the furor of the protest of the mo­ment, be it a rally for a new min­i­mum wage law, calls for sin­gle-payer universal health care or de­mands that po­lice re­lease body-cam­era video footage of the lat­est shoot­ing of an African-Amer­i­can.

Those goals ap­pear as var­ied as the pro­gres­sive fac­tions that com­pose the so­cial jus­tice move­ment — of­ten un­re­lated, some­times re­dun­dant and oc­ca­sion­ally com­pet­i­tive. So­ci­etal change so pro­found that no sin­gle pol­icy or set of poli­cies could ad­dress or de­liver seems to be move­ment’s end­point, and suc­cess a dis­tant speck of pos­si­bil­ity on a far-off horizon.

And be­cause of its wide range of is­sues and com­pre­hen­sive scope, the so­cial jus­tice move­ment is held to­gether more by per­spec­tive than prin­ci­ple. What’s more, is­sues seem­ingly un­con­cerned with so­cial jus­tice have adopted the move­ment’s frame­work of high­light­ing and crit­i­ciz­ing in­equal­i­ties em­bed­ded in so­ci­ety’s core.

For ex­am­ple, it’s im­pos­si­ble to ap­proach po­lit­i­cal ques­tions about the en­vi­ron­ment with­out tak­ing stock of so­cial jus­tice, says Erin Swital­ski, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of Women’s Voices for the Earth, a Mon­tan­abased ecofem­i­nist ad­vo­cacy group.

“There are so many con­nec­tions that are in­tri­cately linked in terms of health and the en­vi­ron­ment and race and class and gen­der that just can’t be sep­a­rated, that in or­der to pro­tect the en­vi­ron­ment, you have to make con­nec­tions with all of those things as well,” Ms. Swital­ski says.

A key fac­tion, the Black Lives Mat­ter move­ment has prompted ques­tions about whether the drive for so­cial jus­tice is aimed at im­prov­ing the lives of the op­pressed — or seiz­ing power through never-end­ing griev­ance-mon­ger­ing.

For Peter Wood, who heads the Na­tional As­so­ci­a­tion of Schol­ars, so­cial jus­tice is merely a pre­text to ad­vance causes “which may or may not have any con­nec­tion to jus­tice it­self.”

“That is, so­cial jus­tice of­ten refers to an ex­cuse that is given to acts of thiev­ery or in­ter­ven­tion on the part of rev­o­lu­tion­ary groups to seize the wealth and power of oth­ers,” Mr. Wood says. “And, ap­pro­pri­ately, it’s be­come a term that is in­ten­tion­ally, by the peo­ple who em­ploy it, meant to cover al­most any kind of act they un­der­take.”

So­cial jus­tice war­riors see so­ci­ety as a strug­gle be­tween the op­pressed and the op­pres­sor, whereby per­ni­cious in­flu­ences in so­ci­ety — cap­i­tal­ism, the fam­ily, “the sys­tem” — con­spire to keep the un­der­priv­i­leged in squalor and the priv­i­leged en­trenched in ex­trav­a­gance.

But what is to be done in con­crete terms to achieve so­cial jus­tice re­mains neb­u­lous.

While Black Lives Mat­ter has sparked protests and ri­ots in re­sponse to po­lice shoot­ings, col­lege ac­tivists seem con­tent to lobby their univer­si­ties for seg­re­gated re­source cen­ters, hir­ing quo­tas and the dis­ap­pear­ance of “mi­croag­gres­sions.”

Al­though the so­cial jus­tice move­ment has proven pro­fi­cient in is­su­ing de­mands, the cri­te­ria by which the coali­tion mea­sures its gains and suc­cesses, and whether such gains will ever be suf­fi­cient, are un­clear.

Mr. Wood says the so­cial jus­tice move­ment is an­i­mated by “the idea that these griev­ances are per­pet­ual and never-end­ing.

“Even the in­di­vid­u­als who have never ex­pe­ri­enced any mean­ing­ful sense of ra­cial op­pres­sion will nonethe­less de­fine them­selves as the in­her­i­tors of ra­cial op­pres­sion and there­fore have a griev­ance to act upon,” Mr. Wood says.

Even if ra­cial prej­u­dices were to be com­pletely snuffed out, so­cial jus­tice is “not about try­ing to elim­i­nate racism per se,” Mr. Scorza says.

“Things will never be per­fect,” he says. “There will al­ways be some­thing to work to­ward. Even if we ad­dress the his­tor­i­cal in­jus­tices that oc­curred for gen­er­a­tions in cer­tain com­mu­ni­ties, we still have cli­mate change to deal with.”

David Lehrer, pres­i­dent of Com­mu­nity Ad­vo­cates Inc., which seeks to ease race re­la­tions in Los An­ge­les with­out re­sort­ing to iden­tity pol­i­tics, says the so­cial jus­tice move­ment is of­ten ir­ra­tional and re­duc­tion­ist.

He points to Black Lives Mat­ter’s in­sis­tence that ev­ery po­lice shoot­ing of an black man re­sults from prej­u­dice.

“I think where they can be faulted is in the im­me­di­ate and knee-jerk re­ac­tion to any in­ci­dent in­volv­ing an AfricanAmer­i­can vic­tim, where they as­sume it is in­evitably a re­sult of po­lice vi­o­lence or prej­u­dice or some sort of vendetta against young African-Amer­i­can males,” Mr. Lehrer says. “And that’s clearly not the right ap­proach.”

Point­ing to the progress the Los An­ge­les Po­lice Depart­ment has made in race re­la­tions since the 1992 ri­ots, Mr. Lehrer says Black Lives Mat­ter should ac­knowl­edge how far the coun­try has come.

“The no­tion that we’re go­ing to reach ra­cial or any other kind of nirvana is a lovely idea, but it’s not a re­al­ity,” he says. “There will al­ways be peo­ple who have a yard­stick that doesn’t com­port with re­al­ity, and they will al­ways find ev­ery­thing fall­ing short of that.”


David Lehrer, pres­i­dent of Com­mu­nity Ad­vo­cates Inc., a group that seeks to ease race re­la­tions with­out re­sort­ing to iden­tity pol­i­tics, says so­cial jus­tice or­ga­ni­za­tions like Black Lives Mat­ter are of­ten ir­ra­tional and re­duc­tion­ist when they in­sist that ev­ery po­lice shoot­ing of a black man is the re­sult of prej­u­dice.

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