“I don’t want no peace, I need equal rights and justice” –Peter Tosh
Language. It encourages the exchange of ideas and information. But merely by opening one’s mouth, it can also betray where you’re from and how people will label you. The words we choose convey much more than their face-value meaning.
But what happens when members of a group use different words? Or the same words with different meaning? How do you move forward? How can you ensure you are actually working towards the same goal?
A few weeks ago, a friend was in a community discussion. She noticed that while the black and longer-term white activists spoke of ‘social justice,’ most of the other white community participants spoke of ‘social change.’
Let’s unpack this: ‘Justice’ is the quality of being just, impartial or fair; the establishment or determination of rights according to the rules of law or equity while ‘Change’ means to become or make something different.
When people speak of social justice, they hearken to a movement rooted in the concept that there is nothing inherently wrong with the black (and wider low-income) community. Rather, social justice takes issue with everyday ‘norms’ that serve to oppress and marginalize that community. The media perpetuates these ‘norms’ whether it be through reports of crime ‘in the black community’ or advertisements showing whites as good/pure while the black actor or model is evil/primal. These seemingly minor yet persistent depictions and images serve to imprint our collective minds with the thought that one type of people (black) is not to be trusted, that they aren’t as educated as the rest of us (white) and that any poverty is due to their own laziness. Social justice then, seeks to eradicate these lies and other barriers and to paint everyone in the same light, judging all by the content of their characters, to quote Dr. King.
This is intrinsically different from “social change,” which seeks to change behaviors, relationships and interactions independent of larger frameworks at play. It’s the difference between asking “what can we do to change this?” rather than asking why things are that way in the first place.
The social justice vs. social change dynamic can cause schisms and failure even when groups are authentic and well-intentioned. I worked in one community where half the group pushed for more community days (social change) and the others wanted to build mentorship programs and civic engagement training (social justice). The group split up and eventually the community day side was successful; but three years later there was only a minor difference in crime and unemployment was as bad as ever.
Social change is (by comparison) easier, it’s sexier, it results in happy photo ops with food and music. Social justice is work. It is shoulder-to-the-wheel every day, countering habits of privilege people don’t even know they have.
In this neighborhood, aligning successful adults with community youth, both ‘at-risk’ and successful, could have provided role models for youth that lacked images of success in their own homes or blocks. Helping youth and young adults vote, participate and make their voice heard in local issues could have lent a student perspective to school board decisions like the removal of music classes and extracurricular activities.
Here, both groups wanted to improve the neighborhood; one thought it could be done only with breaking bread together while the other wanted to tackle the larger issues without regard to celebrating the small successes. Social change is a part of social justice (it’s hard to imagine an effective mentor program without trust) but unless the larger WHY conversation is had and language explained, there is a disconnect and neither will succeed.
It is this place, at the juncture of two cities: white Baltimore and black Baltimore, that I will endeavor to explore in this column. As a mixed race Baltimore transplant, the lens through which I see this city is tinted by my experiences as a black woman raised in a largely white setting. Right now I have a foot in both Baltimores and am unsure of how to move back and forth between them. I look forward to examining that discomfort zone and discovering just how tinted our lenses really are.