Monday, November 15, 2004

Social Justice and "Equality"

In a comment about one of my recent postings, Major Dad suggested that I needed to define social justice. While the rest of his comment consists largely of straw-man arguments and right-wing vitriol that barely deserve response, I think that a definition of social justice is certainly in order. I should say here that for the sake of brevity, I've left questions of race, sex, and gender for another post, and focused mostly on poverty. It'll give me something to write about next time.

To put it simply, social justice as I conceive of it consists of turning a lie into the truth. "What lie is that?" you may ask. It is the lie of western liberalism (used in the classical sense, not the contemporary one,) that, to quote one of the self evident truths listed in the Declaration of Independence, "all men are created equal." As with all statements purporting to be "self-evident," this one just begs to be unpacked a bit. It's no secret that the signers of the Declaration were, for the most part, wealthy, well-connected white guys, and that when they said that "all men" are equal, what they really meant was, "strictly males who are white and own land." While this seems questionable from a modern standpoint, especially in light of the institutional slavery that existed in the late eighteenth century, it made quite a bit of sense to them, as they were trying to contrast themselves with the British aristocracy and royalty.

More recently, however, the meaning of this statement has been taken to mean "all people, with special relevance to citizens of the United States." It is a powerful part of the American myth that everyone born here (or even those who immigrate here ) has within her or his grasp the opportunity to pull themselves up from whatever desparate circumstances they were born into and become great, or at least rich. This assumption has guided much of the conscious and unconscious working of this country for over a century. I will even (generously) suppose that folks on the right who are against such things as social welfare or fair hiring pracitices believe the proposition to be true.

But the assumption is untrue on its face. Arguments of whether people are created notwithstanding, how is a child born into poverty , say, in inner city Baltimore, in any way on equal footing with a guy like me, born into a solidly middle-class family and educated well? Certainly, if the education system in this country was in some way equitably funded and staffed, and if we were somehow able to remove the barriers to hiring and promotion that our theoretical kid faces, we might approach equal footing. Perhaps, if the wealth in the United States was not concentrated so deeply in the hands of a very few people, and if they did not have near-total control over the day-to-day operation of the political system, we might draw even closer.

However, anyone who suggests that the majority of poor people - including the relatively small number of geniuses and athletic stars who are able to escape the trap of poverty and "make it big" - stand the same chance of economic success in this country is either fooling themselves or is lying. The point of continuously insisting, in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, that everyone is equal does serve a purpose, however. That purpose is to make failure seem to be the fault of those who fail, and to leave the wealthy and powerful, who regularly exploit their labor, blameless.

The grossly under-researched and underfunded "No Child Left Behind" program is a perfect example. The very name of the act allows the Bush administration to claim that it has somehow created a level playing field. By enacting an overwhelming series of laws and regulations that set schools up for failure and then failing to fund those requirements adequately, the administration has created a house of cards. When it comes down, administration officials (or, more likely ex-administration officials) will be able to point their fingers and say, in their collective fake Texas accent, "Its their fault - we didn't want to leave any child behind."

At any rate, the ideology and rhetoric of equality does not match the conditions of gross inequality on the ground. It really doesn't take a brain surgeon to figure this out. But as long as we go on believing as a nation that everyone has an equal shot at success and we continue to ignore the numerous and varied circumstances that prevent large groups groups of people from attaining it, we prevent ourselves from correcting the problems. Social justice, then, involves taking serious stock of ourselves as a nation and working to lift up those who need it. While there's a lot of grassroots heavy lifting to be done in this regard, we've also got to destroy the assumption that we're each born into this world with an the same shot at prosperity, and start to recognize that while we all should be equal, we're not.