Adams’ Readings for Diversity and Social Justice is a collection of essays that explore various issues relevant to… well…. whatever ‘social justice’ is. I’ll get to that later. I read this book as a companion to Anderson’s Race, Class, and Gender. Like Anderson’s anthology, the essays in this book are unified by their adoption of critical theory, a worldview based on the analysis of power dynamics between groups and a fundamental commitment to liberation from all forms of oppression.
– Like all anthologies, this one benefits from the plethora of contributors involved (over 100 when co-authors are included). A reader comes away with a broad overview of the social justice movement.
– One of the most frustrating parts of reading critical theorists is their tendency to use undefined or ambiguous terms. Therefore, I was overjoyed that the six essays in “Section 1: Conceptual Frameworks” devoted a great deal of time to defining terms carefully. Although these definitions were not necessarily shared by other authors in the collection, at least some authors acknowledged the importance of careful definitions.
– The section on antisemitism was interesting. Historically, antisemitism has been described as “the longest hatred” (p. 133) and even today, Jews in the U.S. suffer hate crimes at rates that dwarf all other religions or ethnicities. Yet Jews are sometimes excluded from ‘multiculturalism’ because of the “[high] level of assimilation of American Jews; the idea that Jews are members of a religion, not a culture; their economic success; and the exclusion of antisemitism as an issue worth addressing” (p. 169). Cornell West also points out that issues like whether Jews are ‘white’ or ‘nonwhite’ and tension over the state of Israel also produce frictions within social justice coalitions (177-181). For these reasons, the inclusion of an entire section on antisemitism was noteworthy.
– Essays in the ‘Personal Voices’ sections did a good job of exposing the reader to perspectives and life experiences which are probably unlike their own: a half black-half Native American woman, a Jewish Holocaust survivor, a Chinese lesbian.
– Several excellent essays stood out: Richard Rodriguez’s essay on colorism, the preference for white skin within the Hispanic community, was sad and fascinating. Cornell West’s essay on black-Jewish relations was charitable, candid, and even-handed. I was moved by descriptions of childhood poverty in Mennis’ “Jewish and Working Class,” Bray’s “So How Did I Get Here?”, and Scheller’s “On the Meaning of Plumbing and Poverty.” Larrew’s indictment of the college ‘legacy system’ for children of alumni was pointed and, in my opinion, wholly appropriate.
– The book is exceptionally long: 95 essays, spanning 520 pages (at around 700 words per page). It took dedication to finish.
– With the exception of Brauwer’s essay on economic inequality, almost no data or statistics were presented; the essays focused on theoretical frameworks with little empirical validation, on discussions of history, or on personal experiences. Neither was there any engagement with opposing viewpoints. Taken together, these observations are troubling. Think about how we could weave a convincing anti-vaccination or “9-11 truth” narrative if we never had to discuss objective evidence and could limit ourselves to selected historical facts and personal testimonies!
– I was struck by how often the concept of ‘internalized oppression’ was invoked (‘internalized racism’ p. 66, ‘internalized homophobia’, p. 282, ‘internalized sexism’, p 473, etc…). ‘Internalized oppression’ occurs when an oppressed person believes and accepts the negative stereotypes perpetuated about his group by the oppressor group (p. 80). While ‘internalized oppression’ can certainly exist, critical theorists deploy it in an interesting way. When a member of an oppressor group raises objections to the claims of the critical theorist, they can be dismissed as denial, guilt, fragility, or a transparent attempt to retain power; objective evidence for or against the claim need never be discussed. But if a member of the oppressed group raises exactly the same objections, an appeal can be made to ‘internalized oppression’: the oppressed person only makes that objection because of subconscious self-loathing or as a psychological coping mechanism. While both approaches are transparently fallacious (the truth or falsehood of a claim does not depend on the identity of the person making it), they successfully insulate the claims of the critical theorist from any form of scrutiny.
– As in Anderson’s work, most of the authors reel off identical lists of various oppressions: sexism, racism, classism, ableism, heterosexism, etc… However, when I began to compare the descriptions written by completely different authors, the similarities hit me like a hammer. Stripped of their identifying information, the statements were indistinguishable.
– Consider the following:
“____ism is the institutionalization of a _____ norm or standard, which establishes and perpetuates the notion that all people are or should be ____, thereby privileging _____, and excluding the needs, concerns, cultures, and life experiences of ____.” – Blumenfeld, p. 262
“First, in considering oppression theory, the question ‘what is ____ism?’ is addressed through a definition that combines prejudicial attitudes or beliefs with social power. S.P. defines _____ism as “an enforced belief in _____ dominance and control” held in place by system of power and control that ultimately keep _____ subordinate to _____. These systems of power and control take place at institutional, cultural, and individual levels.” – Hackman, p. 199
“_____ prejudice when combined with social power -access to social, cultural, and economic resources and decision making- leads to the institutionalization of ____ policies and practices… the idea of systemic advantage and disadvantage is critical to an understanding of how _____ism operates in American society.” Tatum, p. 80
“Like other forms of oppression, _____ operates on individual, cultural, and institutional levels. _____ affects _____ by inhibiting their access to and power within institutional structures that fulfill basic needs, like health care, housing, government, education, religion, the media, and the legal system.” Castaneda and Peters, p. 320
I leave it as an exercise to the reader to try to determine which passages were talking about which forms of oppression.
– The uncanny similarity of these definitions shows that all of the authors are relying on a single, unifying worldview to process oppression. ‘Critical theory’ is not a haphazard collection of random beliefs; it is a lens through which we see and interpret all aspects of reality, whether race, gender, ethnicity, economics, politics, or physical disability.
– By far, the most interesting feature of this book was the prolonged absence of any definition of the term ‘social justice.’ This term is used dozens of times in the book (I counted 15 separate instances in the first four pages), yet the first (indirect) definition that I found didn’t appear until page 448! This omission gives some plausibility to the complaint that “social justice” is a vague buzzword with little concrete meaning. However, I’m inclined to think that “social justice” is in fact being used concretely and consistently. It isn’t being defined for the same reason that Christians don’t typically define the word “God”: when authors and readers share the same worldview, foundational terms are taken for granted.
– The only direct definition of “social justice” in the book is that social justice is “the elimination of all forms of social oppression” (p. 483). This definition sheds a tremendous amount of light on the similar outlook of all the book’s authors. “Social justice” necessitates the dismantling of sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, classism, and ableism because all of these “-isms” are forms of oppression. “Social justice” demands that we dismantle systems and structures, because all these forms of oppression are not merely personal but systemic. “Social justice” centralizes group identity because group identity is the means by which we recognize who is oppressed and who is the oppressor.
– Moreover, I was always puzzled by the fact that “social justice” never seemed to include more traditional connotations of “justice” such as “punishment for wrongdoing.” This omission is clearly explained if “social justice” is being defined as “the elimination of oppression.” Eliminating oppression is unrelated to punishment. Indeed, if we view the incarcerated as victims of oppression then “punishment for wrongdoing” might even be antithetical to social justice!
– My conclusion is that “social justice” is not being used in these essays as a meaningless catchphrase. Instead, it is a very succinct way for the authors to express their commitment to critical theory as a worldview. This recognition is crucial for people inclined to embrace ‘social justice’ without qualification. While I am not advocating guilt by association, people should be careful about what they’re signing up for.
See all content on critical theory here.