December 4, 2023

The Social Justice Turn

Author: Michael Patrick Rutter
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Earlier this year, the University of Chicago launched a new Department of Race, Diaspora, and Indigeneity as a successor to its original Center for the Study of Race, Politics, and Culture (founded in 1996) and its Department of Critical Race and Ethnic Studies, which studies the ways the society is culturally and institutionally constituted by ideas of race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, class, and nation.  

Six years earlier, Yale had established a Center on Center on Race, indigeneity, and Transnational Migration, to serve as the home of the Ethnicity, Race, and Migration Program and an initiative on Race, Gender, and Globalization.

Unlike programs on Critical Race and Ethnic Studies programs, which had grown increasingly widespread, and which were founded at such institutions as Augsburg, Gonzaga, Manhattan College, Miami of Ohio, Pace, St. John’s University, UC-Merced, and the University of Denver, the Chicago and Yale initiatives are less U.S. centric and more committed to serving as a community resource in identifying, critiquing, and altering racially inequitable policies and practices.

More than that, these initiatives express a broader turn in humanities and social science scholarship away from the cultural, postmodern, and post-structuralist turns that dominated anthropology, geography, history, literature, political science, and sociology since the mid- and late-1970s  

Whereas the cultural turn had focused on ideological and cultural frameworks, postmodernism had critiqued grand narratives, the indisputable reality of objective fact, and broad generalizations about progress, while post-structuralism emphasized the importance of language, fluidities of meaning and identity, the social and cultural construction of knowledge, and expressed skepticism about hierarchies of binary oppositions, the new initiatives stress issues of power, domination, structure, identity, agency, colonialism (and post-colonialism), inequalities of income, health, and wealth, resistance, capitalist and market-based imperatives, and social action.  

This “social justice” turn represents a resurgence of structural and (often) of materialist analyses of international relations, law, medicine, and public policy.  While not rejecting the importance of culture, ideas, language, ideologies, or subjective identities, this turn attaches a far greater emphasis on power, domination, and inequality and the cultural, economic, political, and social implications of race, ethnicity, gender, indigeneity, sexuality, and class.  

It also centers the histories, lived experiences, agency, and resistance of marginalized, subaltern, and other subordinated communities, and pays close attention to indigenous and diasporic identities and experiences.

Equally important is the social justice turn’s explicit goals: “to dismantle white supremacist, settler colonial, anti-Black, capitalist, and heteropatriarchal logics and structures,” in the words of UC-Merced’s critical race and ethnic studies program.  Similarly, Gonzaga’s program seeks to unpack “how domination, (settler) colonialism, racism, and slavery have sustained white supremacist capitalist patriarchy historically and in the present,” to recover “not only histories of domination and oppression, but also ways that historically marginalized groups have resisted, disidentified with, and re-imagined possibilities for agency in the past, present, and future.”

In other words, the most recent turn strives to bridge earlier divides between ideas and power, subjectivity and institutionalized structures, and cultural critique and social activism.  It seeks:

  • To recover the processes through which categories of people were constructed as racial and ethnic groups, and the political, historical, social, and cultural effects of these developments.
  • To look comparatively and critically at the ways in which race and ethnicity are constituted and function in different societies and time periods.
  • To understand race, ethnicity, and indigeneity as historically and culturally specific, relational, and intersectional.
  • To relate current inequalities to such historical phenomena as conquest, settler colonialism, slavery, mass migration and displacement, imperialism and neo-colonialism, and the histories of capitalism, patriarchy, racism, and xenophobia.
  • To uncover the role of law and public policy in establishing and reinforcing social hierarchies and excluding certain groups from full rights-bearing legal personhood.

Keys to the social justice turn are the concept of racialization, indigeneity, and hybridity.  It also looks at a host of social and cultural categories and how these identities bear on access to education, jobs, citizenship rights, welfare services, and political participation as well as on art expression.

A recent incident at the University of Chicago reveals just how controversial the social justice turn is, but also how important it is if we are to truly understand the workings of power and inequality in the past and in contemporary societies.  

You are probably familiar with the hullabaloo that erupted when an instructor proposed to offer an anthropology course entitled “The Problem of Whiteness,” which would examine whiteness as a problem within liberal political discourse.  After a student claimed that the course “’the most egregious example’ of ‘anti-white hatred’ on campus,” and insisted that it would stoke a sense of grievance rather than critical thought, controversy was enflamed by conservative media outlets.  The instructor received email messages and other communications that contained “death threats, veiled threats, and threats of sexual assault, as well as all kinds of misogynistic, racist, and antisemitic languages.”  Out of safety concerns, the class was ultimately rescheduled.

It seems to me that we need courses that analyze “the idea of whiteness, including the concept’s multiple meanings, how it emerged from history, and how it functions in society today,” and how various identities can, at once, create solidarities and also construct social boundaries.

In addition to classes on migration, immigrant rights, citizenship, refugee policy, the construction of national identities, the history of the idea of race, or the history behind today’s culture wars, we also need classes that deal with topics that the Chicago curriculum also addresses, including:

  • The relationship between the late 18th and early 19th century Age of Revolutions and the rise of capitalism, including innovations in finance and the expansion of overseas commerce and colonial slavery.
  • The emergence of the concept of human rights, the social mobilizations that have driven its growth, and the ways in which it has (or has failed to) expand the rights of refugees and marginalized groups.
  • The ways that popular culture reflects, refracts, and reinforces many of the central values, prejudices, and preoccupations of particular societies and disseminates stereotypes and fashions concepts of normality and abnormality.
  • The impact of the slave trade on communities, affinities, and identities in Africa and the colonial construction of race as manifest in scientific theorizing and in the actions of policymakers, missionaries, and settlers.
  • Reparations for historical injustices, including the philosophical debates over personal responsibility for wrongs committed before one was born, the possibilities for atonement or rectification or repair, calculations of cost, and how such reparations would be distributed in a society where identities are increasingly fluid, complex, and self-defined.
  • Indigeneity and how this concept has been understood historically (for example, in terms of primitiveness or romanticized as a kind of nobility, spirituality, or harmony with the environment), issues of dispossession, ongoing struggles for sovereignty and rights, determining group membership, individual and collective identities, and indigenous relationships to land and environment. 
  • Diasporas, their history, and how diasporic experiences has been expressed through narratives.
  • Colonialism and the dynamics of dispossession, exploitation and domination, colonialism’s entanglement with capitalist development and gender and race, colonialism’s contradictions and unforeseen consequences, its relationships to processes of resistance (including culture as a site of struggle), the process of decolonization, and colonialism’s present-day legacies.
  • The construction of diagnostic categories and the process of medicalization and de-medicalization (for example, of addiction and sexual behavior), stigma, and various forms of activism involving gender, sexual, bodily, and neurodivergent categories.
  • The politics of cultural appropriation, borrowing, syncretism, and other forms of cross-cultural engagement.
  • The sociology of education, including the linkages between residential segregation and inequalities of income and wealth, and the composition of student bodies, school staffing, curricula, age grouping, and tracking, school discipline, achievement gaps, elite schooling, dynamics of assimilation for immigrant children, schools as agents of socialization and sites of social engineering, and schools’ contributions to social mobility and reproduction of the social order.
  • Othering, including theoretical debates surrounding nativism, autochthony, and different forms of nationalism their relationship to xenophobia. 
  • Political, religious, and social debates over sex, marriage, birth control, fetal personhood, abortion, rape, childcare policies, and how these are related to the shifts in women’s rights and status. 
  • The contributions of indigenous peoples to the development of modern social theories, including the influence of Australian Aborigines on the ideas of Émile Durkheim and Sigmund Freud; the impact of Native peoples of the US Northwest Coast on Franz Boas conception of culture; the effect of indigenous practices of the Trobriand Islands on Bronisław Malinowski’s ideas about gifts, hospitality, and reciprocity; and of the impact of the Papuans on Margaret Mead’s understanding of adolescence.

I find classes like these enormously exciting.  Anything but narrowly disciplinary, insular, or provincial, these courses deal with big, timely themes from comparative, cross-cultural perspectives, and introduce undergraduates to the latest thinking on issues involving power, dominance, equity, and normality and abnormality in ways that strike me as highly accessible. 

If the problem of the 20th Century was war or race or ideology or decolonization or geopolitical competition, the problem of the 21st is diversity and the social and economic inequalities and biases that have accompanied interactions among the multiplicity of identities in contemporary society.

The problem of diversity is, of course, bound up with issues of power, social stratification, privilege, labeling and categorization, and inclusion and exclusion.  

The problem of diversity also includes identity, cultural borrowings and appropriations, passing and boundary crossings, and the contexts in which identities are imposed, assigned, chosen, embraced, internalized, rejected, and redefined.  We live at a historical moment when many societies structured around status, caste, race, gender, religion, class, and various corporate bodies are seeking to reimagine themselves as republics of equal citizens.  That process requires us to understand how these divisions emerged and what it will require to overcome these divides.

As birthdates in the developed world have fallen and as migratory pressures have increased, clashes over national identity have intensified. At the same time, as previously marginalized groups (and their allies) have asserted personal and collective identities previously dismissed as fringe or unimportant and have demanded recognition, representation, equity, and, in some instances, reparations, controversies involving identities have mounted.  

Don’t we need scholarship that speaks to these issues from comparative, cross-cultural, and historical perspectives?  I think so, and our colleges and universities would be remiss if they failed to address these issues head-on.

After all, a college education shouldn’t merely about career preparation or instilling certain skills or literacies.  It ought to be about asking students to engage with the most pressing issues of their time.  

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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