Sunday, December 9, 2007

Gradient of justice

Given that there is significant injustice in our society, and granted that we are a long ways from a society that establishes what Rawls called the circumstances of justice -- can we at least have the confidence that we are moving in the right direction?

Some people would argue that our society is doing just that. They sometimes point to the fact of rising nutritional and health status in the poorest 40 percent of our population during a 50-year period, and they might say that the situation of institutionalized racism -- and with it the circumstances of middle-class African-Americans -- has also improved measurably in 50 years.

Unfortunately, these impressions are misleading. In fact, it is more likely the case that inequalities of income, wealth, and well-being have worsened in the past twenty years. Lower-middle income and poor people have the smallest share of the nation's affluence that they have ever had. And many of the programs designed to provide a social safety net have been gutted or have disappeared altogether.

And on the racial justice side -- if general social racism has diminished, the depth of racial inequality and lack of opportunity in large cities has almost certainly increased in thirty years. The lack of opportunity and hope that exists in Cleveland, Detroit, Chicago, or Oakland is truly staggering -- and it is worsening. This wall of deprivation is drawn largely along racial lines. And all too often this impacted lack of opportunity leads to crime and violence.

So we don't seem to be on a trajectory of general improvement when it comes to social justice. The myth of the "trickle-down society has turned out to be more trick than truth. The benefits of economic growth have not lifted the lower middle class. This growth has not dissolved the knot of urban poverty. The public is turning its back on public schools -- surely one of the surest mechanisms of greater social justice over time. And we don't seem to have a public commitment to the basic value of allowing all members of society to fully develop their talents. Even more disturbingly, we seem to be entering a period of time that will involve even greater economic anxiety. And anxious times seem to bring out the worst in people when it comes to competition for scarce resources and opportunities.

What we seem to need is a greater sense of community, a greater recognition of our inter-connectedness and inter-dependence, and a greater common commitment to making sure that our society and its policies work to improve the lot of all its citizens. But most regrettably -- this sense of the strands of community is exactly what is most imperiled by the facts of current inequalities. It is difficult to maintain the strands of civic commitment to each other when fundamental inequalities separate us further and further.

So perhaps we ought to consider the unhappy possibility that our society may be inching towards the deepening chasm of inequality that characterizes South Africa, Mexico, or Brazil today. And if this is true, then the future is ominous.

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