Social Justice

I read an interesting article this morning that articulates two definitions of Social Justice, one a modern progressive definition, the other an older, traditional definition. It clarified something that I’ve been grappling with for a while. Despite the appearance of divisions within our community around education policy, I believe all of us want the same thing. I defy you to find anyone in Oakland who would argue that we should preserve the systemic inequity that robs many of the children in our community of an excellent education. We’re not divided about the goal, though we may disagree about the path forward.

The article’s authors, Andy Smarick and Bruno K. Manno are conservatives who favor the traditional view of social justice. But they acknowledge that our goals around education are similar and they recognize an overlap in the foundational beliefs of social justice advocates of both stripes.

Because both approaches to social justice aim at fairness and the protection of individual dignity, especially for the most vulnerable, there is a great deal of overlap. But the understanding we’re advocating explicitly encourages the formation of a variety of groups aspiring to protect the common good and recognizes the danger of investing too much authority in distant, powerful bodies. It respects the right of social groups to take different forms and pursue different activities while holding such groups responsible for living up to their obligations. And it expects from all of us a high degree of civic participation, restraint, and collaboration.

Rethinking Social Justice

My quibble with Smarick and Manno is the characterization of the older, traditional flavor of social justice as being inherently conservative and rooted in Catholic tradition. I grew up in a family that was committed to social justice, and we were neither Catholic nor conservative. My father attended the a Augustana Seminary in the 1950s where he studied under A.D. Mattson, professor of ethics. Mattson taught and practiced the kind of social justice described by Smarick and Manno, but as a protestant (Lutheran) and liberal. The Augustana Lutheran Church (into which my father was ordained) had a strong social justice ethic, and was definitely on the liberal spectrum of religious denominations of the day. In 1915, an Augustana student, Conrad Bergendoff (who would serve as president of Augustana College and Seminary in the 1930s and 1940s) wrote (somewhat provocatively at the time) about the commonality of Christianity and Socialism. “Christianity strives to better the condition of man’s nature, Socialism to better man’s conditions,” he said. While it may be true that conservatives practice this kind of traditional social justice, we liberals have a long history of the tradition as well.


I am personally more aligned with the progressive view of social justice, and like my brothers and sisters in the Oakland Education Association, I see the challenges facing OUSD as urgent and pervasive, requiring immediate action. But I also see the need for a multifaceted approach to solutions that may require intermediate steps towards our shared ultimate goal. And I see the value in reaching out to those with whom we disagree and finding ways to work effectively towards our common goal. The students of our city deserve adult advocates who work collaboratively to bring about the systemic change that will lead to achieving the goal of truly equitable educational opportunity in Oakland.