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What Does Social Justice Mean?

Justice is the concept of fairness. Social justice is fairness as it manifests in society. That includes fairness in healthcare, employment, housing, and more. In a socially-just society, human rights are respected and discrimination is not allowed to flourish. What’s the origin of the phrase “social justice?” It was most likely first used in the 1780s and appears in Paper #7 of The Federalist Papers. As the Industrial Revolution wound down, American legal scholars applied the term to economics. Today, its use has expanded significantly and applies to all parts of society. It’s seen through the lens of traits like race, class, sexuality, and gender. What does social justice look like?

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The principles of social justice

For social justice to become a reality, four pillars must be built: human rights, access, participation, and equity. Social justice can’t be achieved without these four principles.

Human rights

The connection between social justice and human rights has strengthened over the years to the point where many use “social justice” and “human rights” interchangeably. While they are technically different, it’s clear to activists that one can’t thrive without the other. When a society is just, it protects and respects everyone’s human rights. When a society respects and promotes human rights, social justice flourishes. This connection is essential because human rights are recognized globally. When activists fight for social justice, they can lean on the connection with human rights to hold governments, corporations, and individuals accountable.

Access

A just society depends on access to essentials like shelter, food, medical care, and education. It isn’t enough for a society to invest in innovations or create new opportunities; society must also prioritize access. If access is restricted based on factors like gender, race, or class, it leads to suffering for individuals, communities, and society as a whole. Social justice activists spend a lot of time working to restore and increase access for everyone and not just a few select groups.

Participation

Who gets to have a say in society? Social justice isn’t possible if only a few voices are respected. Unfortunately, the voices of the marginalized and vulnerable are often silenced in favor of those with more wealth, cultural influence, and political power. This is even the case when people have good intentions and want to address major societal problems. If the voices of those most affected aren’t heard, solutions are likely to fail or possibly make things worse. Participation must be promoted, encouraged, and rewarded so everyone – especially those who haven’t had a chance to participate before – can speak.

Equity

Many people believe “equality” is one of the principles of social justice, but it’s actually “equity.” What’s the difference? Equity takes into account the effects of discrimination and aims for an equal outcome. There’s an often-cited and adapted graphic (originally created by business professor Craig Froehle) which demonstrates this clearly and simply: three people are trying to watch a baseball game over a fence. All of them stand on a box. One can easily see the field, while the other can just barely see, while the last person is still unable to watch. “Equality” has given everyone just one box to stand on, even though the tallest person doesn’t need a box and one box doesn’t allow the shortest person to see. “Equity” gives the tallest person’s box to the shortest person, allowing them to see. Now, everyone can watch the game.

Examples of social justice issues

When the four principles we discussed above are prioritized, a socially-just society is possible. Where do these principles need to be applied? Depending on the place, some social justice issues are more pressing than others. That said, most societies struggle with similar issues. Here are three examples:

Racial inequality

Racial inequality is one of the most common social justice issues in the world. Most nations have a history of racial discrimination and prejudice of some kind. As an example, the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow persists in the United States. Racial inequality affects a racial group’s ability to find work, get access to healthcare, and receive an equal education. Because race is not a biological reality, but rather a social and political construct with real consequences, progress takes social and political solutions.

Gender inequality

The way things stand, it will take 135 years for global gender equality to become a reality. Obstacles like the gender pay gap, weakening reproductive rights, and unequal education opportunities hold women back. The Covid-19 pandemic also erased a lot of progress as its impact on work and household responsibilities hit women harder. Social justice activists consider gender equality, which intersects with other issues like racial and sexual equality, one of the most important social justice issues of our time.

LGBTQ+ rights

People in the LGBTQ+ community face high levels of violence and discrimination. Prejudice at home, in the workplace, and at school could be a big reason why. Among other challenges, prejudice affects a person’s ability to find employment, shelter, healthcare, and safety. In recent years, the trans and non-binary community has experienced a surge of discrimination, which is already leading to violence and a rollback of rights. The state of LGBTQ+ rights is more in peril in some places than others, but even in the most progressive countries, social justice for the LGBTQ+ community is not well-established. As an example, by March 2022, almost 240 anti-LGBTQ rights – most targeting trans people – were filed in the United States.

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Courses to increase your understanding of social justice

Social justice is a broad field with many branches. Within the field, you can explore topics like feminism, racism, climate change, poverty, and more. To learn more, here are five courses to consider:

#1. Feminism and Social Justice (University of California Santa Cruz)

This online MOOC, which is adapted from Distinguished Professor Bettina Aptheker’s iconic course, offers students a fascinating journey through feminist history using three events: the Empire Zinc strike, the trial of Angelia Davis, and the #MeToo Movement. Students examine a working definition of “feminism,” explore the causes and effects of the three major events, and engage in discussions. The course takes about 8 hours to complete over four weeks.

#2. Causes of Racial Inequity in Healthcare (The University of Michigan)

This course is part of the “Addressing Racial Health Inequity in Healthcare” specialization. Students explore what causes racial inequity in healthcare, which is one of the most urgent and significant social justice issues. Topics covered include the United States healthcare system, the history of racial discrimination in healthcare, and how the system still perpetuates racial disparities. With 3-5 hours of study per week, most students can complete the course in about 5 weeks.

#3. Human Health Risks, Health Equity, and Environmental Justice (The University of Michigan)

The final course of the “Environment on Global Public Health” specialization, this course can be taken on its own if you’re interested in environmental justice, risk management, and more. In this course, students are introduced to environmental justice and EJ issues around the world. You’ll also learn what groups are most vulnerable to environmental health hazards, how to employ a 4-step risk assessment, and how to mitigate environmental injustices. The course takes about 17 hours to complete and can be audited for free with limited access.

#4. How To Change The World (Wesleyan University)

“How to Change the World” covers topics such as gender, education, poverty, activism, the environment, technology, and healthcare. If you’re looking for a broad overview of the most important social justice issues facing the world today, this course is a great choice. Students engage with videos, readings, quizzes, and discussions. Taught over six weeks, the course takes about 26 hours to complete.

#5. Love as a Force For Social Justice (Stanford)

Can love make the world a better place? What is the role of love in social justice movements? In this course, students are introduced to different types of love, non-violent communication, and how to apply love as a force for social justice. By the end of the course, students will have a better understanding of love’s role in community, connection, and change. Topics include biological, social, psychological, and religious perspectives on love. The course takes six weeks to complete or 28 hours.

What social justice means

Social justice means everyone’s human rights are respected, protected, and promoted. Everyone has access to equal opportunities and the resources necessary to thrive. This doesn’t guarantee a perfectg society where everyone is always happy; however, everyone will have a fighting chance at the life they want. They aren’t held back by things they can’t control like systemic barriers, prejudice, and discrimination. There isn’t one clear framework for what successful social justice looks like in practice, but that’s why principles like participation and equity are so important. As long as a nation values social justice and remains committed to its principles, true progress is possible.

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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.