Social justice: a brief history
Before we dig into the principles, let’s review the history of the phrase “social justice.” It became well-known during the Industrial Revolution, which was a time of significant upheaval and social change. Worker rights and women’s rights came to the forefront. In Europe, civil revolutions also drew attention to social justice, especially as it related to economic gaps between the wealthy and the working class. Through the 20th century, the meaning of social justice expanded and became enshrined in international law. Today, we can define and strive for social justice guided by four principles.
Principle #1: Human rights
Social justice and human rights are technically different, but one can’t exist without the other. They share many goals, such as the promotion of equality, an end to discrimination, and better government accountability. Social justice is often still mostly associated with economic and social rights, but it’s more powerful when it encompasses all human rights. When working for social justice, a human-rights approach has many benefits.
The main benefit is that social justice goals are clearer when framed by international human rights standards. Social justice organizations, activists, advocates, and others can look at a social justice issue (such as racial inequality in healthcare) and effectively argue that it’s also a human rights issue. This broadens the group’s options for strategies and ties the issue to a larger goal. Organizers and activists can connect to the larger human rights community. Framing social justice issues as human rights issues also puts more pressure on governments and institutions to address their failings. A just society can’t be a reality when anyone’s human rights are violated.
Principle #2: Participation
The second social justice principle is participation. This means that everyone should be able to participate in the processes that affect their lives. In many societies, only certain groups can fully participate because of things like class and educational barriers. Discrimination due to race, gender, and sexual identity also shut out people and silence their voices. All individuals must be given the opportunity to participate. That includes providing resources so people can learn about the issues at hand and how to get involved. It also means purposely inviting advocates that speak for underrepresented groups, so their interests can be heard.
Increased participation also means increased diversity, which is essential to social justice. Injustice is complex and multifaceted, so addressing it requires solutions that are just as multifaceted. As Ijeoma Oluo said in a 2017 essay, “There is no one-pager solution that will suffice.” The more participants there are, the better the solutions will be.
Principle #3: Access
A just society provides services and resources that are available to all, not just a few. In most societies, access is inconsistent. Based on things like geography, gender, and socioeconomic status, people’s access to resources like quality education and healthcare is limited. Good schools can be expensive, which means only families making a certain income can get in. The same applies to healthcare. Often, only those who can afford good health insurance or who work certain jobs can access coverage for mental health care, visits to the hospital, reproductive care, and so on.
Restricting access to essential rights fuels cycles of poverty, which widens a society’s equality gap. Unequal access means only groups that are already privileged get the resources they need to improve their lives. Those who are unable to meet the criteria set by an unjust system are left behind, even though they are the ones who would benefit the most.
Principle #4: Equity
The fourth social justice principle is equity. How is this different from equality? Equality is the goal while equity is the method by which societies achieve that goal. In unjust societies, there are always disenfranchised groups. These groups need more support and resources than those with privilege. The finish line is the same for both of them, but they’re starting at very different places. Equity is achieved when the specific needs of a disenfranchised group are addressed. As mentioned earlier, there is no one-pager solution or one-size-fits-all fix to injustice. Pretending that there is only results in more harm.
Equitable solutions are essential to participation and access. When determining how to improve participation and access, societies must examine what groups and individuals are most impacted by inequality. Using equity as a framework, it’s possible to make more resources and support available and remove barriers to participation.