The United States Cannot Claim Justice

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For most people it goes without saying: America is one of the greatest countries imaginable. We hear repeatedly and incessantly, from the highest positions within American society, that the United States is the “greatest force for good the world has ever known.” It’s a country that’s said to be the very manifestation of democracy, synonymous with freedom, liberty, and justice. But what if we pause to evaluate this claim? How would we do it and where would it lead us?

One of American’s greatest writers, James Baldwin, a pillar of wisdom during one of America’s great social upheavals, pointed out how he would judge the nation:

If one really wishes to know how justice is administered in a country, one does not question the policemen, the lawyers, the judges, or the protected members of the middle class. One goes to the unprotected–those, precisely, who need the law’s protection most!–and listens to their testimony. Ask any Mexican, any Puerto Rican, any black man, any poor person–ask the wretched how they fare in the halls of justice, and then you will know, not whether or not the country is just, but whether or not it has any love for justice, or any concept of it.

Around the same time, Baldwin’s views were being formalized by one of America’s great theorists. In his monumental work, A Theory of Justice, John Rawls–the late Harvard moral and political philosopher called by some the John Stuart Mill of the twentieth century–develops a theory for evaluating the justness of a society, a way of thinking he calls “justice as fairness.”

“Justice as fairness begins,” said Rawls, “with the choice of the first principles of a conception of justice which is to regulate all subsequent criticism and reform of institutions. Then, having chosen a conception of justice, we can suppose that they are to choose a constitution and a legislature to enact laws, and so on, all in accordance with the principles of justice initially agreed upon.”

The justice is “fair,” because this “choice of first principles” happens in an “original position” of total equality, a hypothetical situation which Rawls uses to contemplate the justness of a society. In the original position, nobody yet knows their stations in life, and are thus able to contemplate society’s structure without self-interest: they’re always unsure where they’ll reside in the final structure. To quote Rawls, “Among the essential features of [the original position] is that no one knows his place in society, his class position or social status, nor does any one know his fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities, his intelligence, strength, and the like.”

This “original position” is the important logical tool. With it we can rationalize what a just society would look like. For economic, distributive justice, Rawls develops what he calls the “difference principle.” The idea is that inequalities of wealth are only just so long as they improve the lot of the least-off groups in society; thus, utilitarian schemes that promise greater wealth for the aggregate at the expense of the disadvantaged are considered unjust: we would not expect those in the original position to create a victim-oppressor relationship when they might become the victim.

Who are America’s disadvantaged groups and what kind of lives do they lead? We are now tasked with looking at America in a much different way: we must look behind the scenes at a segment of American society that the nation tries hard to hide and ignore.

If you’re in an American city and you take a trip to the downtown library, chances are it’s become a de facto homeless shelter as the most downtrodden among us take refuge in what little we provide. For some reason there’s always a large number of people that find themselves homeless; it’s a predictable outcome of our social arrangement. Homelessness in America is a deep dark pit of perpetual anxiety and despair. With nowhere to go, one suffers the elements at their worst and goes without food at their hungriest–all while enduring the harsh stigma of homelessness and with little hope of ever escaping; once one falls into the pit, it’s remarkably difficult to get out.

On top of creating this pit of ultimate despair, we stigmatize and criminalize the homeless. Laws being passed all across America effectively criminalize being homeless. Here in Texas a number of recent laws target the homeless: in Houston, it’s now illegal to feed the homeless unless you’ve received permission to do; in San Antonio, it’s now illegal to ask for money if you’re homeless. There was even an attempt by a city council member in San Antonio to fine those that give money to the homeless. These are all the products–the legal manifestation–of a culture that stigmatizes homelessness as an individual problem rather than problems for the whole community. Most people see the homeless as “the other,” completely unable to see them as “us”; nobody thinks it could happen to them.

If you happen to be black in the United States, you’re unlikely to feel that a nation founded on slavery has justice at heart. If being born into poverty is not oppressive enough, the criminal justice system has you in its sights: black males born in 2001 are estimated to be five times as likely to end up in jail than their white counterpart; for the first 5 months in 2015, unarmed blacks were more than twice as likely to be killed by the police than whites. This loss of freedom and life is just the beginning of any honest analysis of this type.

As any activist will tell you, if this was news to you, as it is to many with no real experience with these disaffected communities who are instead guided by the perverse teachings of the mainstream media, your journey through America is just beginning. America is not interested in justice for these communities. It fails the test.

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