The concept of social justice is founded on the belief that all people merit equal rights and dignified treatment. In a socially just community, all people would reap communal benefits and shoulder communal burdens by sharing responsibility as social actors. Social justice is a broad concept in that it seeks to end discrimination against all marginalized communities, which are discussed individually using identity categories such as race, gender, sexual orientation, disability, religion, and age, among others. The negative stereotypes and prejudiced attitudes that accompany racism, sexism, ageism, heterosexism, ableism, and religious intolerance such as antisemitism and Islamophobia reinforce social injustice.
Economic and environmental justice overlap with social justice; all three concepts are considered central to creating sustainable communities. Economic justice indicates fair access to economic opportunities and resources such as livable wages and affordable housing. Environmental justice refers to the fair treatment and equal involvement of all communities when shaping environmental laws and policies, as communities of color and poor communities have been harmed disproportionately by environmental hazards and toxicity. The effects of social injustice include poverty, segregation, prejudicial treatment, violence, achievement and wage gaps, and poor health outcomes. These far-reaching impacts result from longstanding norms, policies, and practices that direct socioeconomic benefits toward some groups while directing socioeconomic costs toward others.
Social justice advocates distinguish between the concepts of equality and equity. Equality is achieved by distributing the same resources to every person regardless of differences in need, identity, or status. Equity, meanwhile, accounts for those differences and aims to reduce or remediate them, which may mean distributing resources unevenly to serve different communities fairly. Equity focuses on the desired outcomes of equal access and opportunity. Affirmative action policies, for example, aim to provide equity in education and employment to groups that have been oppressed historically, such as people of color and women. Such policies attempt to correct for histories of exclusion through actively expanding opportunities for inclusion.
At the core of any oppressive system is the idea that one group is superior and, due to that superiority, has the right to control another group. Social oppression is the application of prejudicial hierarchies, or rankings of value, that reinforce a dominant group's retention of power. Power, which refers to control over one's own reality and the realities of others, can be exerted through social, economic, political, and cultural means. Institutional and systemic oppression involve patterns of practice or policies that bolster inequities by unevenly distributing resources or erecting barriers to participation. For example, the persistent wage gap between men and women—as well as the wage gaps between white women and women of color—is in large part due to hiring and promotion practices that favor white, male, cisgender candidates. Structural oppression takes a broader view of how history, culture, and ideology influence unjust conditions. The school-to-prison pipeline, for example, predominantly affects students of color. Black and Latinx youth receive disproportionately harsh punishments in school, which increases the likelihood they will become involved with the criminal justice system while still minors. Early interactions with police and family courts, in turn, increase the likelihood of future encounters with the system and correlate with poorer long-term educational, economic, and health outcomes.
According to social theorists, interpersonal oppression refers to how unequal power dynamics take shape at the individual and everyday levels. As social injustices are normalized through systemic and structural forces, members of a socially dominant group come to feel that personally disrespecting or mistreating members of an oppressed group is permissible or justified. Interpersonal oppression is at work, for example, when a man makes derogatory sexist comments to a woman he passes on the street or when a white person calls the police on a Black person engaged in common, everyday activities. While interpersonal oppression is a byproduct of institutional and systemic oppression, it plays a significant role in reinforcing those broader forces.
History and Oppression
Oppression has immediate and ongoing consequences for individuals and groups. Historical trauma refers to the shared emotional and psychological effects of violence and dispossession, including the destruction of culture, that accumulate over time within a community due to the exposure of multiple generations to oppressive forces. Psychologists and social historians have documented evidence of historical trauma among Indigenous peoples relegated to reservations; immigrants forced into relocation camps; African Americans whose ancestors were kidnapped and enslaved; families living with the immense stressors of generational poverty; and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) people who have experienced stigma, exclusion, and violence. Sociologists and psychologists contend that the impacts of historical trauma can be seen in intergenerational cycles of social and public health problems such as suicide, substance abuse, domestic violence, mistrust of authorities, negative self-identity, and unmitigated mental health issues.
Many of today's social inequalities are rooted in religious beliefs and cultural values that predate the founding of the United States and were written into the nation's founding documents and legal codes. The Declaration of Independence, for instance, proclaims "all Men are created equal" but does not mention women and refers to Native Americans as "merciless Indian savages." The three-fifths clause of the US Constitution mandated that congressional representation would be based on the number of white citizens plus three-fifths of the number of "other people," meaning people held in slavery. US Supreme Court rulings such as Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) declared that racial segregation did not violate the Constitution. Scholars have also identified a wealth of federal and state legislation that legally sanctioned various forms of discrimination such as laws denying voting rights to women, disqualifying disabled people from immigrating to the United States, and limiting marriage to different-sex couples.
Historians consider the movement to abolish slavery in the United States to be the country's first social justice movement. While people had argued against oppression prior to abolitionism, the fight to end slavery brought diverse groups together to organize for a common goal. This included many women who were also involved in the women's suffrage movement, which continued after slavery ended in 1865 and formerly enslaved men gained the right to vote in 1870 with the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment. Following the close of the Civil War (1861–1865), other social reform movements proliferated, shaping the traditional tools that social justice advocates continue to use. The fair labor, anti-lynching, and anti-imperialism movements emerged as distinct causes and established civil disobedience, nonviolent protest, education, media outreach, ballot initiatives, and litigation as central organizing strategies for achieving social justice. Continuing to use these tactics, women gained suffrage with the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920.
Civil rights leaders in the 1950s and 1960s mobilized thousands to participate in nonviolent demonstrations like marches, sit-ins, and boycotts, leading to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In 1965 César Chávez and the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA) went on strike against the California grape growers who employed them. In the years that followed, the NFWA staged a 340-mile march to draw national attention to the exploitation of Latino and Filipino farmworkers and led a widespread consumer boycott of grapes. The women's liberation movement of the 1970s leveraged women's representation in journalism and media by writing political manifestos, publishing books and pamphlets, and launching explicitly feminist women's magazines to challenge gender disparities at home and in the workplace.
Litigation and state ballot measures, meanwhile, bring action through the courts and the voting process. In November 2018 Florida voters passed Amendment Four to restore voting rights to approximately 1.4 million Floridians, disproportionately people of color, who had completed sentences for felony convictions. However, the Republican-majority legislature passed legislation in 2019 requiring all back fees and fines be paid before a released felon could vote, disenfranchising an estimated 770,000 people. Critics described the law as a new version of a "poll tax," outlawed in 1964 with the Twenty-Fourth Amendment to the US Constitution. A lower court allowed the law to stand, as did the US Supreme Court in July 2020, potentially impacting the 2020 elections. In the same month, twenty-two US state attorneys general signed onto a lawsuit challenging a rule implemented by the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). The suit alleges that the rule is unlawful because it "arbitrarily and unlawfully strips health care rights … from transgender people, women and other individuals seeking reproductive health care" and "impose[s] unjustifiable barriers to health care on vulnerable populations." A number of states put social justice issues related to election systems and voting rights on the ballot in the 2020 general election. Ballot measures include proposals to end felony disenfranchisement, lower the statewide voting age for primary races, overturn outdated laws, and reduce the influence of partisan politics in redistricting.
Social Privilege and Social Capital
Just as injustice and inequity accrue over generations to widen disparities, wealth and privilege are also cumulative in their beneficial effects. Social privilege consists of advantages that are not earned but which society affords to members of some groups to the exclusion of others. Sociologists note that privilege may be overt or subtle, arising in ways that are normalized and unfelt by the privileged group. Social capital—which refers to influential networks and relationships that provide access to opportunities, such as the practice of legacy admittance at prestigious universities—is a key means for accumulating wealth, improving social status, and retaining power individually and intergenerationally.
Cultural theorists argue that privilege is often marked by absences such as being able to move through life without having to form awareness of other worldviews, recognize that experiences are not universal, or deal with particular forms of discrimination in everyday life. Able-bodied privilege means not having to worry about barriers to independent mobility like sidewalks without curb cuts and subway stations without elevators. White privilege means being able to experience situations like routine traffic stops as inconveniences, while people of color experience them as racialized, injurious, and possibly life-threatening. Reflecting this disparity are survey results released by the Pew Research Center in 2020 in which 42 percent of white respondents but only 9 percent of Black respondents rated police favorably on treating racial and ethnic groups equally.
As with oppression, privilege is also based on hierarchies and granted according to social identity factors. Sociologists identify groups in the United States that experience certain privileges to include white people, nondisabled people, members of middle- to high-income households, those possessing higher education levels, male-identified and masculine individuals, cisgender and heterosexual people, and members of Christian faiths. Activists argue that privilege, like oppression, should be analyzed using an intersectional lens, which means considering how privileges and oppressions compound to create additional disparities within social groups. Intersectionality was first theorized by Kimberlé Crenshaw, a Black feminist legal scholar, whose analysis of domestic violence crime data revealed clear racial and gender disparities among the ways victims and perpetrators experienced the criminal justice system. A central contention of Crenshaw's work was that neither white-dominated feminist movements nor male-dominated antiracist movements could adequately represent Black women's experiences or interests.
The internet and social media provide tools for social justice organizing and activism, particularly for intersectional movements. Access to web-based technologies allows advocates to expand the geographical reach of their messages, mobilize supporters by lowering barriers to participation, disseminate petitions and action alerts, encourage inclusivity, and facilitate democratic involvement. For example, the #BlackLivesMatter movement, which originated in 2013 when three activists used the hashtag on social media, grew to national prominence following the police killing of Black teenager Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014. According to the Pew Research Center, awareness of #BlackLivesMatter was widespread among US adults by 2016 yet support for the movement was divided along racial lines. In a 2016 Pew poll, 41 percent of Black respondents expressed strong support for the movement compared to 14 percent of white and 15 percent of Hispanic respondents. Pew polled the public again in 2020 amidst unprecedented protests sparked by multiple highly publicized incidents of police violence against Black Americans. In the June 2020 poll, 71 percent of Black respondents, 42 percent of Hispanic respondents, and 31 percent of white respondents expressed strong support for the movement. #BlackLivesMatter has been credited for driving this shift in public opinion toward acknowledging systemic racism in policing and criminal justice as a major social problem.
Social justice movements have also been affected by political polarization and the proliferation of social media criticism challenging the social justice debate. Critics decry "identity" and "grievance" politics, which they claim focus on suffering and assign undue blame to institutions and organizations. The derisive term "social justice warrior," initially added to Wikipedia in 2014, has been used online to discredit advocates, paint them as opportunists, and allege that they are "playing the victim."
Tensions related to online discourse also manifest within social justice communities, which must grapple with "call-out culture," a practice of explicitly identifying oppression perpetuated online and holding individuals accountable for their expressions of prejudice and privilege. According to its critics, call-out culture has a chilling effect on the free exchange of ideas in the public sphere. In their view, the fear of being called out by social media users as having done or said something racist, for instance, makes people less likely to engage in open debate or share potentially controversial ideas. Social justice activists online, however, contend that oppressive conditions have in part persisted because prominent people have not been held accountable for participating in—with or without conscious intention—furthering oppressive ideas, attitudes, and narratives. Renowned English author J. K. Rowling came under fire multiple times in 2020, for example, when she published an article and multiple tweets defending perspectives on gender and sex that activists identify as transphobic. The online conversation used hashtags such as #CancelJKR and #RIPJKRowling to draw attention to the story, educate others on how Rowling's views are harmful to transgender people, and urge consumers to boycott her work. While some high-profile commentators defended Rowling and framed the online response as violence, trans activists and their allies pointed to the outsized influence and reach of Rowling's words when compared to a historically suppressed and unheard transgender community.