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Racial Justice 101: Definitions, Examples, and Learning Opportunities

Racial justice is the equal and fair treatment of everyone regardless of ethnicity or race. To achieve racial justice, societies must tackle racial prejudice, discrimination, and systems that disproportionately harm some while favoring others. What do you need to know about racial justice? In this article, we’ll explore important definitions, examples of racial justice, and learning opportunities like courses and books.

Racial justice reckons with the legacies of discrimination, removes existing barriers to racial equality, and promotes equity.

Definitions: Where do race and racism come from?

The world didn’t always believe in race. According to author and activist George M. Fredrickson, race and racism first emerged during the Middle Ages. The 13th and 14th centuries in particular saw an increase in antisemitism, which the Southern Poverty Law Center refers to as “the oldest hatred.” However, the word “race” didn’t start to have its modern meaning until the 17th century. Scientists, philosophers, and other academics were categorizing plants, animals, and other parts of the natural world using reason and science, so it only made sense to them to categorize humans in the same way. Through the 18th century, Europeans projected their ignorance, biases, and hatred into their categorizations, creating racial hierarchies that put white people on top. “Race science” justified the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, colonization, and other atrocities.

While race as a social construct is very real, research consistently disproves the merits of race science; there is no genetic basis for race. This is important to understand because inaccurate views about so-called “inherent” racial differences often justify inequality. In reality, racial injustice is sustained by three types of racism: interpersonal, institutional, and systemic racism.

Interpersonal racism springs from an individual’s beliefs and attitudes about race. It occurs between individuals and can include slurs, biases, and hate crimes. Institutional racism manifests within an organization and includes discriminatory behaviors, biased policies, and organizational practices that create inequitable outcomes. Systemic racism is society-wide and refers to systems of racial biases that privilege certain groups while disadvantaging others. Racial justice requires a reckoning with interpersonal, institutional, and systemic racism.

What do you feel is the biggest barrier to achieving racial justice?

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What are some examples of racial justice?

You now have a clearer idea of where ideas about race and racism come from. How have people fought against racial injustice over the years? Here are three major examples:

#1 Ending segregation

Case study: South Africa

For almost 50 years, South Africa had a society segregated by race. The process took centuries following the arrival of Dutch settlers in South Africa. Even though white settlers made up a minority of the population, they eventually gained total control of South Africa’s government and economy in 1948. The all-white National Party enforced harsh racial segregation, which separated people based on their race, criminalized interracial marriage, and denied Black South Africans equal rights and opportunities.

For the anti-apartheid movement, racial justice efforts took many forms. The International Center on Nonviolent Conflict lists strategies such as school boycotts, mass demonstrations, memorials, economic boycotts, and much more. In the late 1980s, change finally arrived. The government began negotiations with anti-apartheid groups and in 1993, the prime minister agreed to hold the first all-race, democratic election. Nelson Mandela was elected and in 1994, the apartheid system finally ended.

The legacy of segregation continues to impact South Africa. As an example, while the ANC funded almost 2 million homes for Black South Africans between 1994-2004, the homes’ locations reinforced segregation and existing issues like limited access to public services, high costs, and long commutes. In 2022, South Africa was the most unequal country in the world; 10% of the population held more than 80% of the wealth. Race is still a big reason why, so while apartheid may have ended, racial justice is still being fought for.

#2 Reforming the criminal justice system

Case study: The United States

The United States criminal justice system is racially biased. According to data from the NAACP, Black Americans make up 22% of fatal police shootings, 47% of wrongful conviction exonerations, and 35% of those who receive the death penalty. Black people make up just 13.4% of the US population. These numbers aren’t disproportionate because Black people are inherently more criminal. In her book The New Jim Crow, legal scholar Michelle Alexander points to projects like the war on drugs, which was part of Ronald Reagan’s “Southern strategy” to appeal to poor and working-class white people resentful of the gains of the Civil Rights movement.

To improve racial justice, the criminal justice system must be reformed. In an overview of criminal justice reform in 2022, the Sentencing Project lists trends like reducing prison admissions, adopting sentencing alternatives for drug offenses, limiting incarceration for parole violations, and ensuring incarcerated voters get access to voting. How police operate in the country must also be challenged. Police violence (which is a global problem) and the level of protection violent cops receive are two major racial justice issues.

#3 Paying reparations

Case study: Harvard University

The OHCHR defines reparations as “measures to redress violations of human rights by providing a range of material and symbolic benefits to victims or their families as well as affected communities.” In the United States, reparations come up during discussions about the legacy of slavery. Since 1991, NAACP has affirmed reparations such as a national apology, financial payment, social service benefits, and land grants. While there are currently no federal reparations programs, universities have begun adopting them.

Harvard University is one example. In 2022, the school released a report documenting its ties to slavery, which included direct, financial, and intellectual connections. As part of its reckoning, Harvard announced it was setting aside $100 million for an endowment fund and other actions. It does not mention direct reparations to descendants of those impacted by Harvard’s history with slavery. Harvard isn’t the only university to adopt some form of reparations; Georgetown University has the Reconciliation Fund. This fund gives $400,000 annually to projects directly impacting descendents of those enslaved on the Maryland Jesuit plantations. Reparations are controversial. While 77% of Black adults think descendants of enslaved people should receive some kind of reparations, just 18% of white U.S. adults agree.

Where can you find learning opportunities about racial justice?

This article only scratches the surface of racial justice, so here are three courses where you can learn more:

Anti-Racism Specialization (University of Colorado Boulder)

Length: 3 months Mode: Self-paced Commitment: 6 hours / week Level: Beginner

This 3-course specialization is a great choice for students interested in race and racism, especially in the United States. You’ll learn about critical race theory, historical and linguistic constructions of race in the US, and the theory of intersectionality. You’ll also learn to apply what you’ve learned outside the US, develop an interview project, and create a plan for practicing anti-racism.

Shawn O’Neal and Jennifer Ho from the Ethnic Studies department teach the course. If you take all three courses, the specialization takes about 3 months with 6 hours of work per week. No prerequisites are required.


Structural Racism: Causes of Health Inequities in the US (University of Michigan)

Length: 3 weeks Mode: Self-paced Commitment: 5-6 hours / week Level: Beginner

Racial health disparities are very common in the US. This course digs into the reasons why and teaches students how to identify solutions. By the course’s end, you’ll be ready to describe the impact of structural racism, identify what causes current racial health inequities, and apply public writing strategies to combat racial health inequities.

Paul Fleming (Assistant Professor of Health Behavior & Health Education) and William D. Lopez (Assistant Professor of Health Behavior & Health Education) teach the course, which is divided into three modules. It takes 17 hours total to finish the course. No prerequisites are required.


Beyond Diversity: Anti-Racism and Equity in the Workplace (Berkeley University of California)

Length: 6 months Mode: Self-paced Commitment: 5-8 hours / week Level: Beginner

This professional certificate is great for diversity professionals interested in further career growth. Over three courses, you’ll learn how to navigate complicated group dynamics, communicate in challenging situations, and make critical decisions. By the end, you’ll be ready to identify and respond to unconscious and implicit bias, understand the perspectives of minoritized employees, implement equitable hiring practices, and create an equitable, inclusive workplace for everyone.

Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton (Professor of Psychology) leads the course. With 5-8 hours of work per week, you can finish the certificate in about six months. As the courses are intermediate, some background knowledge is valuable, but there are no specific prerequisites.


What racial justice books should you read?

If you’re looking for texts about racial justice, here are five good ones to start with:

The Third Reconstruction: America’s Struggle for Racial Justice in the Twenty-First Century (2022)

Peniel E. Joseph

Historian Peniel E. Joseph frames 2020 as the “climax” of a Third Reconstruction and new struggle for Black Americans. With insight into centuries past, Joseph tracks the Third Reconstruction from Barack Obama’s election to the January 6th assault on the capitol. While the first two Reconstructions fell short, can the Third Reconstruction achieve victory?

To Exist is to Resist: Black Feminism in Europe (2019)

Francesa Sobanade (editor) and Akwugo Emejulu (editor)

In this book, activists, artists, and scholars explore how Black feminism and Afrofeminism are practiced in Europe. Gender, class, sexuality, and legal status are just a few examples of what’s covered in this text. With sharp insight, the authors imagine a future beyond the boundaries of neocolonialism and modern Europe practices.

Caste: The Origins of our Discontents (2020) 

Isabel Wilkerson

Why is America the way it is? In this book, Isabel Wilkerson describes a hidden caste system, which goes beyond race, class, and other factors. She describes the eight pillars that uphold caste systems across time, including stigma, bloodlines, and divine will, and explores how American can move on from artificial divisions toward true equality.

So You Want to Talk About Race (2019)

Ijeoma Oluo

How do you talk about race? In this book, Ijeoma Oluo provides a roadmap for talking about race with the people in your life, including family and coworkers. She covers topics like police brutality, the model minority myth, and cultural appropriation. Written with all races in mind, this book is a valuable tool for anyone interested in tough, honest conversations.

How We Get Free: Black Feminism and the Combahee River Collective (2017)

Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor (editor)

In the 1960s and ‘70s, a group of radical Black feminists formed the Combahee River Collective. This book collects essays and interviews with the group’s founding members and contemporary activists reflecting on the group’s groundbreaking influence. How We Get Free is a vital read for anyone interested in feminism and racial justice.

About the author

Emmaline Soken-Huberty

Emmaline Soken-Huberty is a freelance writer based in Portland, Oregon. She started to become interested in human rights while attending college, eventually getting a concentration in human rights and humanitarianism. LGBTQ+ rights, women’s rights, and climate change are of special concern to her. In her spare time, she can be found reading or enjoying Oregon’s natural beauty with her husband and dog.