Historical Injustice in a Just World

In the modern era, the conceptual questions of justice, fairness, and equality have gripped the world due to the increasing acceptance of the fact that historically some members of society have suffered significant injustices. The question of how to make the world a more just place continues to be debated by ordinary people, politicians, philosophers, and jurists. Among the people who have delved into this issue substantively are John Rawls, Charles Mills, and James Sterba. This essay seeks to analyze how a just society should address historical injustices, largely by taking into account the views of John Rawls, Charles Mills, and James Sterba.

History is rife with examples of genocides, forced conversions, slavery, and other instances of significantly unjust actions perpetrated by those who were in power against those they had subdued. This is apparent by the colonization of peoples throughout the world by Europeans, the enslavement of Africans by Americans, and other instances. Moreover, throughout history, there has been a theory that all people ought to be governed only by agreement with the social contract. This social contract theory had several proponents. According to Rawls, to ensure fairness, the social contract should guarantee a minimal standard to the most vulnerable members of the society. Mills, on the other hand, developed his contract along the race lines. His theory postulates that the white race conspired to draw up a contract of domination over the other races. This theory is important in any discussion of historical injustices as some of the most grievous injustices have been race-based.

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The society can deal with the issue of historical injustices in several ways. First, the society has to recognize that historical injustices have led to political, social, and economic disenfranchisement. Consequently, this calls for an active intervention by the government on the behalf of the people discriminated against. This would involve affirmative action, which is positive discrimination in favor of groups that have been at a disadvantage historically. For instance, this can involve reserving educational opportunities for the historically disadvantaged groups and setting aside jobs for those qualified among them. While some may view this as unacceptable, the society ought to note that this simply gives the necessary opportunities to the people whom the society had conspired to aggrieve historically. As such, it would fulfill the aspect of the equal right to the most extensive social system of basic liberties that Rawls espouses.

It is apparent that the issue of education and jobs obtained through affirmative action draws a lot of attention from the people who see it as reverse discrimination or, at the very least, as an unnecessary intrusion and denial of the rights of others. However, when one looks at it critically, it becomes apparent that such measures can assist in reducing the inequality that comes as a result of historical injustices. For instance, for a long time, the school facilities in inner cities where black people reside in the US have been poorer than those situated in whites neighborhoods. This put them at a disadvantage during college admission and in the job market. When this is done repeatedly over a generation or two, an entire people become disenfranchised politically, socially, and economically. Consequently, affirmative action is necessary as it helps reverse this disenfranchisement.

A second way to deal with historical injustices is by enacting minimum standards of living. Rawls recognizes that in any society, some level of inequality is not only inevitable, but also necessary due to people’s unequal talents and fortune. However, Rawls Difference Principle also recognizes that, for a society to be just, inequality should not be allowed to exceed a certain level, especially considering that sometimes inequality is a result of historical injustices. To deal with this, Rawls proposes a “maximin” view of income in society, in which the “most disadvantaged” members of society have a guarantee of a minimum level of income that is necessary for their sustenance. This includes such aspects as welfare for the poorest members of the society, funded by the taxes of those who are well endowed.

However, the problem with this, as free market capitalists point out, is that most of the inequality in society does not come from any historical injustice, but from hard work and thrift. Consequently, taking from those who have made their wealth in a legitimate manner is not only unjust, but also fosters poverty in society as it discourages theft and further discourages those with capital from investing it. As Milton Freedman notes, there seems to be no moral obligation for the rich to provide for the poor, as this might infringe on the liberty of the rich. Thus, this calls into question the whole idea of welfare. Moreover, Sterba notes that when people are not forced to support the welfare system through taxes, they are inherently more productive and can give more to charity willingly, rather than being forced to.

In some cases, historical injustices have been seen as results of outright racism in the society. For instance, many political scientists have explained the central role that race has played in the development of the US, including pointing out that the US was founded on the principals of white supremacy and white racism. This has resulted in historical injustices towards people of color like Native Americans, Blacks, and Hipics. Mills explains that the society can do this in several steps. First, these historical truths, rather than being “ignored, minimized or dismissed” as has been the case throughout the centuries, should be dealt with. The community can accomplish this by giving weight to inegalitarian instances, such as the US federal government acting as an institution that has upheld for centuries the arrangements that enforce white supremacy. Mills has termed this the politics of recognition. The acknowledgment of these instances would enable the state to deal with the issue.

On the other hand, the issue of white supremacy has embedded itself so much into the into the American psyche that it is hard to confront it. As noted, the founding of the US had the issue of race as its basis. Thus, the problem continues to be a defining characteristic of what America is. Consequently, while dealing with the issue of white supremacy in the US should be a priority, it will be a hard task and might take a long time, while the people of color continue to suffer. It will have to involve changing most of what America is today. The process of societal evolution can take centuries. Moreover, there is bound to be widespread opposition by the conservative members of society on the issues of politics of recognition.

Another way in which the society can deal with the issue of historical injustice is by treating everyone as equal before the law. However, this should go beyond the descriptive meaning of equality under the law to its normative and applicable form. In this case, one ought to note that equality is equated with, ensuring that it would move the society in a more just direction, especially regarding those people who have historically been subjected to injustice. People should start by removing the historical social stigmatization that has ensured that all people are not equal before the law, as racial minorities seems to have borne the brunt of the criminal justice system in the US. Dealing with this aspect of historical injustices would lead to the creation of a more just society in the US.

Many people acknowledge that there is a difference between the assumption of legal equality and its actual application. Dealing with the issue has proved to be problematic due to various interpretations of the law by such people as prosecutors, jurors, and even Supreme Court justices, based on their ideological leanings. Consequently, while this remains a noble idea, its enforcement continues to be a problem.

In conclusion, the essay explored how the society should deal with the issue of historical injustices. First, the society should ensure that it sanctions affirmative action so as to assist those who have historically been subjected to disenfranchisement economically, socially, and politically. The society can also provide minimum standards of living for the people by ensuring that there is a sustainable standard of living for all. This can, for instance, happen through using the welfare system. Third, it is apparent that openly manifested racism, especially the aspect of white superiority, has contributed a great deal to the suppression of other people not just in the US, but also in other parts of the world. Consequently, the society should acknowledge the instances of such abuse and seek ways of rectifying them. Moreover, there seems to be a difference between aspects of equality before the law and the actual application of the principle, especially regarding minorities. The society should seek ways of dealing with the issue, for instance, by ensuring that the minorities enjoy basic legal standards or eliminating the manifest and implicit bias in the society that has historically stigmatized minorities.

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