Social justice is a term that has been a part of American politics since the mid 1960s. Unfortunately, there is no national understanding on exactly what this term means. As an American historian that has spent considerable time studying the history of the early republic, there was a strong desire to create a nation founded on the concept of equality under the law. Men such as Benjamin Franklin, John Jay, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison had grown up in a society where one’s social status was dictated by birth. Each of those men, held high in regard by the American colonials, were, in the eyes of the English elite, commoners without any claim to the benefits of nobility.
Social justice began before the nation was born
Social justice, though not mentioned in the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution, didn’t need to be defined by the generation alive during the birth of the nation. Instead, it was something that was understood. History teaches the heirs of the American Revolution that Jefferson meant all men are created equal and the early drafts of the Declaration of Independence bears witness to his belief, along with that of John Adams and Benjamin Franklin, despised the practice of slavery. Franklin is known to have founded the first anti-slavery society in Pennsylvania long before American independence became a part of the fabric of American colonial society. He felt the issue of slaver was tarnishing everything that he dreamed of America becoming.
What these men endeavored to create was a nation where the most important rights would not be the rights of the government or the ruling aristocracy, but the rights of the individual. One of the founding precepts of American jurisprudence was equal justice under the law. Equal justice for all regardless of the color, religion, ethnic origin of those facing either the criminal or civil court system was the national dream for those crafting the Constitution. Yes, it was an imperfect system as long as women were denied the basic rights of citizenship and slaves were bought and sold. Like anything else does, as our nation grew, we have continued to address those issues through elections, through discussion, and mutual respect. For many, it was a slow process where the end results desired took a century. For others, it became an opportunity to introduce foreign concepts to the nation in an attempt to radically change its development.
There have been social justice movements that have actually been beneficial to the nation but most of them began far earlier than we are taught in most American history classes. Abigail Adams, the wife of the second President of the United States, strongly advocated for women’s rights during the meetings of the Second Continental Congress through her letters to her husband. Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and many others advocated for the abolition of slavery as they were struggling with what independence for the colonies would actually mean. These issues, and others, would become background issues until American independence could be won. For this generation, social justice was about creating a society where all men – and women – were created equal. This was their vision and this was the dream passed onto each generation of Americans since then.
Social justice now has a new meaning
As our nation heads towards another election day, I cannot help but to question what is now being considered social justice. Since the turbulence of the 1960s, social justice, while at first glance, sounds like a continuation of what has always existed. But once the question is asked about how it should be achieved, the process is quite opposite in its nature. As I asked one question in graduate school, it became clear to me of the evil nature – the Marxist and racist nature – of the modern social justice movement. It is always based on the same theory: Someone doesn’t have something. Instead of correcting it and applying a working solution that will benefit all society, it is far easier and “more just” to take it away from those who have been deemed unworthy of having that something. I have to ask this question again as I did then – how is discriminating against one group and elevating another, whether it is in rights, money, or possessions, creating justice? In fact, it is creating just the opposite – it fosters resentment.
During the Ferguson protests, nearly every news broadcast contained some sort of rationalization that it was a social justice movement, seeking to open dialogue between law enforcement and the African-American community. But since then, the demands of the movement simply highlight the hypocrisy of social justice. Add to this the demands of the New Black Panther Party (to have a nation within a nation) under the banner of social justice and there is a clear understanding of what this concept of social justice truly means in the minds of those who currently demand it.
The social justice mantra has also been waved at the nation since the Supreme Court made their decision regarding gay marriage. The quest for social justice has done many unjust things, such as dictating to small business owners that their personal religious convictions have no place in the business market. We also see the banner of social justice for the GLBTQ community expanded to include a debate around genetic sexual identity verses chosen sexual identity, public bathrooms, and in Massachusetts, even churches may be subject to laws prohibiting any discrimination against the GLBTQ community. This quest for social justice has no reservations on imposing its agenda on others to the extent of even restricting the rights of others.
Another aspect that has emerged in the modern rendition of social justice is a theory I will simply call “guilt by birth.” As a college instructor I often have students that are dealing with issues caused by the teaching that they, on the basis of just being born white, are racists and supremacists and have been given “privilege” as a result. If social justice was truly about justice, then instead of pulling others down, it should be about lifting those who are down up – to be on an equal footing. Within our nation no one should be made to feel less than the average citizen for simply being born of a certain race. It is just as bad as the scientific “facts” and medical teachings of the 19th century claiming that African-Americans were incapable of learning or participating in American society to the same extent as whites. In the eyes of true justice, two wrongs, regardless of how noble, never make a right.
Social justice is not the answer to our nation’s problems
Under its current definition, social justice is not the answer for our nation’s problems. If we are to create “a more perfect union”, we have to take a look on what made this nation so remarkable in its past. During the American Revolution, there were individuals that did not support it. Although there were still a lot of hard feelings on both sides that still remained after the war, that generation of politicians saw the importance of creating a national dialogue where all parties were heard. In the end, the nation would begin a process of healing. No, it was not perfect and serious issues remained, such as slavery, treatment of the American Indians, and women’s rights. Each of those would eventually be addressed, to some extent. And in each one of those issues are literally hundreds of related issues that still await a real solution.
The way our nation can begin to heal is to realize that in spite of our differences, we are all one people. Race is only skin-deep, as modern genetics has proven; this is where the discussion needs to begin. We need to get away from group identity politics and begin to focus on people as individuals. As I’ve studied American history, there’s a few lessons previous generations can teach us. The first and most obvious lesson is we need to become the solution to our problems while becoming less dependent upon career politicians and Washington. We live in our communities, we know what we need to improve and make things better. We need to reassert the importance of the family and the crucial role it plays in creating strong and healthy communities. There also must be a fundamental understanding that to accept someone does not mean we need to agree with everything they do.
Since the 1960s, the national government has failed to deliver on the promises for better education, better jobs, and better opportunities. The founding fathers understood too well the ineffective nature of centralized government. There is no one- size-fits-all solution because no two communities are the same. This is why the founders left the state governments intact – and if you follow the creation of the national government, many states already had independent governments before even the Articles of Confederation were signed. What works for our nation, what will heal our nation, is a return to common sense.