What Is Social Justice Education?

A renowned scholar and educator explains social justice education and highlights its role in actively countering injustice and helping to build an inclusive democracy for the benefit of all.
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Justice requires the resources needed for all people to lead secure and fulfilling lives, along with respect for the histories, cultures and experiences of diverse groups, especially those who have been historically marginalized and oppressed

In Teaching for Diversity and Social Justice, now in its fourth edition, my coauthors and I offer our goals for social justice: creating a society where everyone has fair access to the resources and opportunities to develop their full capacities, and everyone is welcome to participate democratically with others to mutually shape social policies and institutions that govern civic life. 

The process for attaining social justice we view as necessarily inclusive, respectful of human diversity and affirming of the capacity of all people to join with others to create change for our collective well-being. Social justice requires engaging everyone in democratic and collaborative processes grounded on the premise that there is enough to meet the needs of all. 

  • Social justice, then, works against greed, selfishness and hatred and toward generosity, mutuality and love

Appreciation for diversity—differences such as race, ethnic heritage, class, age, gender, sexuality, ability, religion and nationality—is a central feature of social justice. Without recognizing and valuing diversity, we cannot effectively address issues of injustice. 

  • Concrete knowledge of different groups’ histories, experiences, ways of making meaning and values is important to the social justice goal of recognition and respect. 

Understanding and eliminating oppression is an equal feature of social justice. Without addressing injustice in all its forms, we cannot truly value diversity. Oppression is created and kept alive through hierarchies that rank groups in ways that give power, social and economic advantages, and institutional and cultural validity to some groups over others. 

  • Challenging hierarchy requires confronting the ideological frameworks, historical legacies, and institutional patterns and practices that unequally structure social relations.

Social justice education, therefore, provides tools to examine the structural features of oppression and our own socialization within unjust systems. It helps us develop awareness of injustice in our personal lives, communities, institutions and the broader society. Such an education enables us to develop empathy and commitment, as well as skills and tools for acting with others to interrupt and change oppressive patterns and behaviors in ourselves and the institutions and communities of which we are a part. 

  • Understanding the dynamics of oppression is important for developing effective strategies to counteract it. 

As noted above, one of the central features of oppression is sorting social groups into hierarchies by race, class, gender, sexuality, age, religion and other markers. A group’s position in the hierarchy regulates access to resources, participation, social respect and self-actualization. 

  • Like a computer operating system, categorization and hierarchy run invisibly in the background to make oppressive outcomes seem logical and inevitable. 

Furthermore, the effects of oppression accumulate to lock in advantage for some and disadvantage for others across time and institutions. For example, sorting people into racial categories with those labeled white as dominant initially justified both taking land from Indigenous people and coercing labor from enslaved Africans at the nation’s founding

  • Irish, Italian and Jewish immigrants who at first were not considered white were gradually incorporated into this racial hierarchy that positioned white people above other racial groups.

Advantage and disadvantage compound and become baked into social institutions. This can be seen in the compounding effects of segregating people by race and class. Persons who live in poor, rural or predominantly Black and Brown neighborhoods today will likely attend under-resourced schools; have less access to opportunities for advancement, reliable transportation, good food and health care; and be exposed to more environmental toxins. In corollary fashion, persons who live in middle or upper-middle class neighborhoods will likely have access to well-resourced schools and opportunities along with a cleaner environment

  • Accumulated advantage and disadvantage consolidate in institutional policies and practices to entrench privilege and disadvantage.

Oppressive conditions become normalized through the actions of people going about their daily lives and often can’t be isolated to individual or institutional agents. For example, marginalization and exclusion of people with disabilities does not require overt discrimination against them—although this also happens. 

  • Business as usual that does not consider ways to include people with disabilities is sufficient to prevent change. 

Barriers to access go unnoticed by those who can climb stairs, reach elevator buttons and telephones, use furniture and tools that fit their bodies and functional needs, are able to speak and use all their senses, and generally move in a world that is designed to facilitate their passage. Without challenge to this status quo, it seems perfectly natural to those whose access is unaffected. That is until they discover these privileges are fleeting once they experience pregnancy, accident, illness, aging or future disability.

Dehumanization is another feature of oppression. Language and images that deny the full humanness of people from different groups play a critical role in justifying mistreatment, brutality and violence that would otherwise not be tolerated. 

  • This is one reason why words, beliefs and symbols matter, not merely for the purpose of civility, but because of the potential they hold for leading down the path to atrocity. 

For example, referring to Mexican and Central American people as “animals” or an “infestation” led to policies that separated children from their parents and put them in cages. And even though police brutality is excused through more “benign” terms as well, describing Black men as “superpredators” rationalized police brutality against them. 

Remaining silent in the face of mistreatment and violence toward others is also dehumanizing and ultimately leads to the degradation of society as a whole. The dehumanization of systemic police violence and brutality against Black people was largely accepted by white society until shockingly confronted by the murder by police of George Floyd on video. 

Oppression is not inevitable or natural. It is learned through socialization. We internalize social norms to make meaning of our experiences, as well as to fit in and survive. Through socialization, an unjust status quo comes to be generally accepted and replicated both by those who benefit and those who suffer from oppressive systems. 

To varying degrees, for example, poor people and affluent people alike internalize the stereotype that people who are poor are responsible for their poverty, and that those who accumulate riches deserve their wealth. Assumptions that youth are irresponsible and incapable of serious commitments, or that elders are slow and less vital than middle-aged people in their “prime,” are taken as true by people of all ages.

  • Pressure against rocking the boat keeps most people from challenging inequality and discrimination so that by simply going along with business as usual, we help to perpetuate injustice.

Oppression persists and sometimes shifts into new forms to endure and override challenges against it. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 aimed to overcome legal barriers at state and local levels that prevented African Americans from exercising their right to vote as guaranteed under the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Section II was the enforcement mechanism to ensure the protection of this right. 

In 2021, the Supreme Court weakened enforcement of the Voting Rights Act by eliminating Section II, and state laws are now making it much more difficult for Black and Brown people to vote (and many people of all races who are young, disabled or elderly) through restrictive voter ID requirements, purging registered voters from voting rolls, shutting early voting sites in Black and Indigenous communities, and removing drop off boxes for mail-in ballots, to name a few. 

  • Social justice will always require equally persistent effort to maintain fair and just laws and practices.

Though the consequences of oppression fall unevenly on Black and Brown communities, there are consequences for everyone. Heather McGhee in her book The Sum of Us traces the legacies of racism and white supremacy through zero-sum policies that ultimately harmed white people themselves. 

Physician Jonathan Metzl in his book Dying of Whiteness shows how the racial resentment that fueled white support of pro-gun laws, resistance to the Affordable Care Act, and cuts to schools and social services has resulted in increasing deaths by gun suicide, falling life expectancies, and rising school dropout rates for white people as well. 

  •  A goal of social justice education is to help us recognize the terrible social, political and moral costs of maintaining systems of oppression. 

When millions of Americans are homeless and hungry, we all pay a social and moral price. The cost of enjoying plenty while others starve makes it ever more difficult to claim that our society is fair and that we are decent people. 

Just as important, it also prevents us from developing a clear view of underlying structural problems in political and economic systems that ultimately make all of us vulnerable to a changing international economy that disregards national boundaries or allegiances. 

  • The productive and creative contributions of people who are shut out of the system are lost to everyone. 

Rising violence and division make it increasingly difficult for anyone to feel safe. Reduced social supports, limited affordable housing, and scarcities of food and potable water loom as a possible future for all who are not independently wealthy, particularly as we reach old age. 

The current global pandemic and climate crisis highlight the inequalities and injustices in systems of health care, housing, labor and other areas, and reveal our linked fates in the face of challenges that cannot be overcome without addressing inequality.

  • Social justice requires a commitment toward equality and possibility, and a belief in the capacity of people to transform our world.

Oppression is never complete; it is always open to challenge, as is evident in past and ongoing movements for justice that have made inroads against it. Just as we are socialized into oppression, we can consciously unlearn its habits and proactively work with others to imagine, practice and enact more just and equitable possibilities for living together on this planet. 

  • Since social injustice is based on historical, institutional and systemic patterns—and not simply a matter of individual bias or misunderstanding—education alone cannot dismantle it. 

However, the consciousness, knowledge, skills and commitments developed through social justice education can lay a foundation for working effectively, even joyfully, with others in democratic, organized action directed at institutional and societal change aimed at creating a world better for us all. 

About the Author

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