Social justice: Principled or power-hungry lobby?
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.