Project 21 New Visions


R. Dozier Gray

Social Justice: Not What It Used to Be

by R. Dozier Gray (bio)

Who could possibly be against social justice?

Despite a lofty history and an altruistic premise, there is plenty to be leery of when it comes to "social justice" in this day and age.

In one sense, social justice is the basis for a sound and civil society.  The struggle for social justice is, in its purest form, the struggle for equality of opportunity over outcome.  That's not necessarily a problem.

Consider that this year marks the 50th anniversary of the Woolworth lunch counter sit-in and the 55th anniversary of the Montgomery bus boycott.  These were struggles for social justice, and were key to ending the scourge of enforced segregation in our nation.

Abolishing slavery.  Women's suffrage.  All social justice movements of their time.  All good.

But there is a problem in modern times, where social justice is often redefined for progressive political gain.  This happens when social justice is intertwined with a quest for economic justice.

Take, for example, then-candidate Barack Obama's conversation with Sam "Joe the Plumber" Wurzelbacher.  When Joe expressed his concern to Obama that the nominee's economic plans would raise his taxes, Obama replied: "I just want to make sure that everybody who is behind you — that they've got a chance to success, too.  I think when you spread the wealth around it's good for everybody."

Then there's a 2008 settlement between the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Salvation Army, in which the charity's "English only" on-the-job policy was determined to be discriminatory of national origin.  The charity was compelled to allow employees to be able to speak their native tongues at work.

Both of these examples of modern social justice would likely make rank-and-file progressives today beam with pride.  But the victories, and the means or achieving them, pale in comparison to the bus boycott or the sit-in.

In this new interpretation, social justice can more appropriately be considered "collective retribution" or "restorative justice."  The lingering question, however, is to restore what to whom and at what cost.  It opens up a Pandora's Box of unsettling possibilities.

Merely suggesting that "justice" needs a qualifier is appalling.  To be just or equitable is a simple task: all parties must be treated fairly as reasoned conscience dictates.

Surely progressives must understand there are inherent difficulties that the common man would have with this outcome-based equality and justice over plain old equality and justice.

Yet progressives seem to have turned away from a trust in absolute truth with regard to social order and away from the idea that "order" within our society is necessarily filled with a mix of happenstance, individual entrepreneurship and all manner of the human exercises of free will.

Inherently, that's not fair.

In a political utopia, the end might justify the means.  But, seeing that a heaven on earth is neither practical nor can be prescribed, this is a dangerous notion.

In the classical sense, government mediates between conflicting free wills so that everyone might coexist within a society as freely as possible.  Government should not be enlisted to dream up, and then protect, "rights" under the guise of social justice.  This is unnatural.

That's why there is no "right" to free or cheap health care, charity, a college education, retirement or other current government entitlements.  There just isn't.

Similarly, there is no right to equitable outcomes — or any particular outcome, for that matter.

There is simply nothing good or right about a flavor of justice that seeks to level a playfield assumed to be unbalanced by individual freedom.  Yet that's what the popular notion of "social justice" has become.

If you want to go down the road of equality of opportunity where individual preparedness paves the way, I will walk with you.  Other than that, you walk alone (or, at least, without me).

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R. Dozier Gray is a member of the national advisory council of the Project 21 black leadership network.  His Twitter handle is rdoziergray.  Comments may be sent to [email protected].

Published by The National Center for Public Policy Research. Reprints permitted provided source is credited. New Visions Commentaries reflect the views of their author, and not necessarily those of Project 21, other Project 21 members, or the National Center for Public Policy Research, its board or staff.

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