Why I Do “Social Change,” Not “Social Justice”

Nota bene: “Social change” and “social justice” mean many different things to different people, and my notions of “justice” are heavily influenced by my social location as well as by my perception that justice in America is often no more than a brand name for things which are incredibly unjust. My goal in this post is not to offer some kind of authoritative definition of either “social change” or “social justice,” nor to challenge people who are dedicated to the idea of “social justice,” but to describe some ways in which “social justice” is not a simple term with which good people should reflexively agree.

Now, to the post!

“Justice” — retributive, distributive, restorative or transformative — is an ideal. It involves the address of past wrongs.

It is righteous; it is critical; it is evasive; it is unreal; and it is insufficient.

Justice happens by degree, and it can happen to a seemingly-sufficient degree without ever really challenging the status quo. Even restorative justice can take place as a way of protecting the powers-that-be. Think about it: Someone can be “restored” in the view of society, though reparations (either paid by the one being restored or paid to the person, their family, or their descendants) or through rehabilitation, and still nothing will have altered whatever caused the original injustice.

We say “social justice” to distinguish it from “criminal justice,” but in both instances, justice asks, “What wrongs do we have to right?”

On the other hand, my social change asks, “What do we have to destroy so we can role the dice on building something better?”

Let’s look to a current case: Sandra Bland. For those of you who haven’t been following the news out of Texas, Sandra Bland was a black woman detained after a traffic stop who later turned up dead in her jail cell. The official story of her “suicide” is almost comically inconsistent.

Sandra Bland deserves justice; there is no question in my mind about that. And if that justice was vast and encompassing enough to prevent all future deaths in police custody, that would be pretty good. I couldn’t be critical of that kind of justice.

But justice as I know it, as I’ve seen it practiced, is incapable of such a project. Once you get too far from where you began, conventional ideas of “justice” begin to think that one thing has nothing to do with the other. Social justice that starts to seem inconsistent to the uneducated lay person is going to be stymied by accusations of injustice (when you ask the powers-that-be for too much, too quickly, you get silenced with accusations of injustice). Our concept of “justice” is just too. damn. small.

What I believe we should do is gather wisdom (and determination) from tragedies, such as the death of Sandra Bland, and use that wisdom to critically examine everything, everything, everything.

Test everything, everything, everything. Then try to change whatever fails the test, even if it doesn’t fit neatly into the box of a past wrong we need to set right.

And as long as you are doing that, you can call it whatever you’d like.