Issues

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. Discrimination and social justice are not compatible. While “social justice” as a term sees widespread use these days, it’s not new. It appears in The Federalist Papers and was most likely first used in the 1780s. As the Industrial Revolution wound down, American legal scholars applied the term to economics. Now, social justice applies to all aspects of society, including race and gender, and it is closely tied to human rights. More specifically, what does social justice mean?

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The principles of social justice

Social justice depends on four essential goals: 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. It has become clear to activists and governments that one can’t exist without the other. When a society is just, it protects and respects everyone’s human rights. This connection is essential since human rights are recognized globally. Various treaties help keep governments accountable.

Access

Being able to access essentials like shelter, food, and education is crucial for a just society. 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 work to increase and restore access, giving everyone equal opportunities for a good life.

Participation

Social justice isn’t possible if only some voices are heard. Unfortunately, that’s often what happens and the voices of the marginalized and vulnerable are silenced. Even when society tries to address problems, solutions won’t work if those most affected can’t participate in the process. Participation must be encouraged and rewarded so that everyone – especially those who haven’t had a chance before – can speak.

Equity

Many people believe that “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 a graphic that demonstrates this well: three people are trying to see over a fence. One of them is already tall and able to see – they represent the most privileged in society. The other can just barely see and the last person – the most vulnerable in society – can’t see at all. “Equality” gives everyone one box to stand on, even though the tallest person doesn’t need it and it still doesn’t allow the shortest person to see. “Equity” doesn’t give the privileged person any boxes. Instead, the middle person gets one box and the last gets two. Now, everyone is at an equal level.

Examples of social justice issues

With the four principles we discussed above, social justice is possible. Where is social justice needed? Depending on the nation, some social justice issues are more pressing than others. Overall, most societies struggle with similar ones. Here are a few examples:

Racial equality

Racial inequality is one of the most common social justice issues in the world. Most states have a history of racial discrimination and prejudice of some kind. It affects a racial group’s ability to find work, get access to healthcare, and receive an equal education.

Gender equality

The way things stand, it will take 100 years for global gender equality to become a reality. In the United States, it’s 208 years away. Obstacles like the gender pay gap, weakening reproductive rights, and unequal education opportunities hold women back. Social justice activists consider gender equality, which affects other issues like racial 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 all over the world. Among other challenges, it affects their ability to find employment, shelter, healthcare, and safety. It’s more dangerous in some states than others, but even in the most progressive countries, social justice for the LGBTQ+ community is not well-established. Explore our collection of free LGBTQ+ online courses if you would liek to learn more.

What social justice means

Social justice means that everyone’s human rights are respected and protected. Everyone has equal opportunities. This doesn’t guarantee that society will be perfect and everyone will always be happy. However, everyone will have a fighting chance at the life they want. They aren’t held back by things out of their control like systemic obstacles or discrimination. There isn’t one clear framework for what successful social justice looks like in practice, but that’s why principles like participation are so important. As long as a nation values social justice and remains committed to equality, progress is possible.

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.