For most of the last 150 years, social justice in the West was defined either by liberals who supported Adam Smith’s and John Locke’s notions of individual liberty (free markets, civil rights) as just or by Marxists, who supported the idea that economic equality as the bedrock of social justice.
The liberals had the upper hand until the 1930s, when the Great Depression and the rise of both communism and fascism, shook their beliefs to the core. Despite the U.S. government’s use of terrorism to try to suppress Marxism (i.e. “McCarthyism”), the Marxist idea of social justice became increasingly popular among young people in the 1960s and 1970s.
The American youth who were attracted to Marxism at that time were aware of the ways that the U.S. government had tried to repress the Black and Chicano liberation movements and the anti-war movement. They also had developed an internationalist perspective through their solidarity with Vietnam, their support for African national liberation, and their belief that Maoist China and communist Cuba were developing models of social justice.
What most of us (certainly myself) did not know was that another concept of social justice was hiding in plain sight all along. This was what Ruby Sales refers to as the “folk religion” of African America. By calling it a folk religion, Sales emphasizes that this concept is not institutionalized within black churches but is held collectively by the community itself. In this tradition, social justice is defined as universal relationships of love and support for everyone to be all that s/he can be. This tradition, Sales explains, arose in the bush arbors behind the slave quarters, where the enslaved people came together to provide one another with the only safe place they could have: their own communal embrace. In this setting, the creation of a beloved community was a powerful rebuke of the hatred and inhumanity of the slavers. (Hatred for the slavers was not enough, for hatred and dehumanization the slavers’ own language).
The creation of the beloved community was a profound project. It took place in many forms. Christianity itself was re-imagined in this tradition. But this tradition also allowed people to maintain their families in the face of a system that could tear your loved ones out of your arms at any moment. This tradition found its purest articulation in musical forms that were rooted in diasporic Africa but were purely American: jazz, blues, R&B and hip hop. This tradition also supported a continual call for the extension of democracy, for economic opportunity and reparations.
The black folk tradition extended further in the 1970s and 1980s, as Black women, seeking an alternative to the limited vision of white feminism, articulated the ideas of intersectionality, in which everyone’s experiences of marginalization and dehumanization are acknowledged, and a multiplicity of identities and demands for freedom are embraced. This modern form of the beloved community embraces not just women of color, but also queer, poor and differently abled women. Rather than polarizing with men, this feminism seeks to support the quest for men’s liberation as well as for women. Through the lens of intersectionality, Pat Collins tells us, everyone can center their own particular oppression without fear that they are competing with others’ ability to do the same. It is by allowing the multiplicity of identities and interests that we discover the universality of our humanity, i.e. the beloved community for us all.
Even after 250 years of slavery and the crushing terrorism of Jim Crow racism in the 20th Century, this tradition provided African Americans with the fortitude to call for love and respect from everyone, even white America. African America has continually brought to America the hope for human liberation. From Frederick Douglass’ and Soujourner Truth’s time forward, black Americans have “called America to her higher destiny.” (ML King). Writing in The Souls of Black Folk in 1903, W.E.B. DuBois said that even in the face of the rising tide of Jim Cow racism,
“We the darker ones come even now not altogether empty-handed: there are to-day no truer exponents of the pure human spirit of the Declaration of Independence than the American Negroes; there is no true American music but the wild sweet melodies of the Negro slave; the American fairy tales and folklore are Indian and African; and, all in all, we black men seem the sole oasis of simple faith and reverence in a dusty desert of dollars and smartness. Will America be poorer if she replace her brutal dyspeptic blundering with light-hearted but determined Negro humility? or her coarse and cruel wit with loving jovial good-humor? or her vulgar music with the soul of the Sorrow Songs?”
The black folk religion in this way is the foundational underpinnings of all Americans’ aspirations for humanity for freedom and justice. Without the black community-led movement for democracy, what would have happened to the United States in the 1960s? Would we have expanded democratic rights? Would there have been a feminist movement? Would LGBTQ rights have been possible?
Indeed, it is the centrality of the “black folk religion” to all human aspirations for freedom and community that explains the strange way that many whites in America both hate and love black America, simultaneously incarcerating and murdering black people while adoring black music and aesthetics. (See Jordan Peale’s cinematic masterpiece Get Out!). As Ruby Sales explains, no one gets away with racism: white Americans have been spiritually and psychologically damaged by centuries of racism too. While whites got the privileges of better jobs, housing, education, and political power, most whites also got a belief in their own superiority over others, an idea that was soul-crushing in its falsehood, a true spiritual nihilism, Indeed, as D. King said in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” the hatred of the other guaranteed the dehumanization of the self. It is this spiritual and psychological void that leads many whites to obsessively seek from the black Other that which they cannot create for themselves: i.e. a sense of their own humanity, a connection to the beloved community.
And so, in 2019, the search for social justice continues. The Marxist belief that equality is the answer has certainly been brought into question by the experiences of socialism in the Soviet Union, China and Cuba, as well as the failure of Marxist theory to explain capitalism (see Thomas Picketty’s devastating critique of Marx’s falling rate of profit thesis). But I have no doubt that we have made enormous advances since the 1960s in our understanding of social justice. Social justice activists continue to demand the end of exploitation and greater democracy and freedom. But from Occupy Wall Street to Black Lives Matter to Standing Rock, we have seen a greater focus on building community, on the quality of relationships within the movement.
While the demands for economic equality and greater democracy are still essential, we are now closer than ever to seeing those demands not as social justice, but as essential conditions supporting the growth of an ever-expanding beloved community.