The phrase “social justice” pops up a lot today in discussions around human rights issues. It may seem new, but it’s an old concept. A Jesuit priest – Luigi Taparelli – was most likely the first to use the term in the 1780s. It also appeared in The Federalist Papers. Late into the Industrial Revolution, legal scholars in America began using the term in their writings. By the early 20th century, international law included references to “social justice.”
In practice, social justice has existed longer than the term. Early in their histories, most societies valued fairness as it applied to resources. Philosophers and academics developed their ideas of what an ideal society looks like. Often, equality was an important piece of it. When “social justice” started becoming more popular, it applied mostly to economics. It has since expanded to encompass all aspects of life within society such as gender and race. Today, social justice is often included in the same breath as human rights. To achieve social justice, human rights must apply to everyone.
What are the major social justice issues?
Injustice and inequality develop based on how society perceives and treats certain groups. Systems that restrict certain individuals and groups from opportunities and happiness are unjust. This discrimination is based on traits like gender, race, sexuality, and class. Here are some specific social justice issues facing the world today:
It will take about a century for the world to achieve gender equality. Equal economic opportunities, access to education, and quality healthcare remain elusive to millions. The binary of gender is also undergoing a significant shift. This brings up newer concerns about equality, discrimination, and representation.
Considering a transatlantic slave trade prospered for almost 400 years, it makes sense that racial inequality is one of history’s biggest social justice issues. The United States is still dealing with the effects of slavery and the Jim Crow era. That’s only one example of racial injustice. Depending on the place and time, other racial feuds have caused significant problems. Social justice means that human rights, equal opportunities, and legal protections apply to all races.
In most places in the world, the LGBTQ+ community deals with discrimination and violence. There’s been a lot of positive change, but obstacles still exist in even the most progressive areas. Social justice for the LGBTQ+ community means rights like marriage equality, legal protections, and societal acceptance. Awareness of the danger this community faces and how it intersects with race is also necessary.
The right to birth control has been a social justice issue for years. While countries around the world have seen progress in this area, there are still many places where birth control is expensive or unavailable. Societal culture might also hinder an individual’s ability to access birth control. Not being able to choose when to become a parent affects a person’s economic opportunities, health, and the wellbeing of their family.
Access to education
Research shows that a good education is key for a person’s personal growth and economic future. Many face obstacles to learning. On a global scale, women and girls receive less education. A person’s economic class also has a significant impact on their ability to get a good education. Social justice in this area strengthens individuals and makes their futures brighter. It builds up an entire society.
How is social justice achieved?
Activists and politicians always battle about how to best achieve social justice. Unfortunately, it’s common for solutions to only scratch the surface. Many believe that a human-rights approach is the best way for social justice to be successful. Though technically different, social justice and human rights share a common goal. They both seek equality for everyone. When solutions keep the focus on human rights – the right to life, to good health, to shelter, to love, etc – social justice follows.
The human-rights approach also holds governments accountable to the treaties and laws they’ve committed to. The term “social justice” is vague, but “human rights” is much better defined. Though both terms have been around for a while, international law stands on “human rights.” It provides a framework of conduct for activists to hold unto when fighting for social justice.
Why social justice matters
Social justice is about building healthy, happy, and successful societies. The only way to ensure that happens is to commit to respecting everyone’s human rights. Groups and individuals shouldn’t face systemic barriers keeping them from their full potential. When one group suffers, society suffers. To some, social justice initiatives might appear to “punish” certain groups. More often than not, debates and criticism come down to how society perceives equality. One definition can look quite different from another. The battle around defining “social justice” and how to get there rages on. In these discussions, it’s essential to remember: social justice is about human rights.
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