Faculty Sponsor: Dr. Paul Studtmann
Claims of racial injustice can often trigger concerns of some kind of “group based” foundation for justice, where white people are responsible for racial injustice merely in virtue of being white and black people are victimized by the system merely in virtue of being black. Critics worry this essentializes race and places groups, rather than individuals, as the center of normative concern. This concern, when raised in good faith (if ever), seems to arise from a concern of how we are to ascribe responsibility for racial injustice (in the sense of responsibility for having caused it, not for having to fix it). Although individuals certainly too often do hold reprehensible personal feelings towards people of other races, and act on those feelings by discriminating against or even acting violently against those people, it seems deeply implausible to think that the entirety of racial injustice in the United States is caused by such individual-level wrongdoing. But if that’s the case, where are we to locate the wrongdoing? How are we to say that most people have some complicity in structures of racial injustice even if they’ve never engaged in interpersonal racial hatred or personally discriminated against anyone of a different race?
I argue that a concept called ‘structural injustice’ can provide us a powerful answer to this question. The idea of structural injustice is that there are cases of what certainly look like serious injustices where we are unable to find any specific agent who seems to have acted wrongly. I will first argue for a novel way of understanding structural injustice that points us to think of how we are responsible not just for our actions in direct interpersonal interactions, but how the choices that we make and others make can combine to produce unjust effects for others that may be physically distant from us. I then defend the claim that substantial portions of racial injustice in the United States — in particular, de facto segregation and the failure to provide reparations for the country’s history of slavery and racial plunder — are in large part structural injustices. Finally, I discuss the institutional implications of structural injustice, arguing that forces of spontaneous order without intentional direction attempting to solve structural injustice will be insufficient to remedy them.