“What would you give up for justice?” That is the provocative question psychologist Betsy Stone asked last week in an article published in eJewishPhilanthropy. And while we disagree with Stone’s conclusions, her thought experiment is worth considering, as it helps focus on the imperative of pursuing justice.
Buffeted by the tempests of MeToo, the coronavirus pandemic, economic upheaval, the killing of George Floyd, and the outpouring of anger and concern, and with our sensitivities open to new thinking, Stone asks, “What would it look like if we actively lived lives that refused the status quo? If we really saw all of us as made in God’s image?” And before allowing for a facile answer, she challenges her reader: “What would you be willing to lose in order to gain equality?”
The question is troubling. Indeed, the suggestion that one needs to lose anything in order to achieve equality sounds un-American. Justice is not a zero-sum game, where one party gets fair treatment only if the other does not. But that’s what Stone suggests: “I wish I believed that a rising tide lifts all boats, but I don’t. Not in the area of race in America. So I and other white people must begin to ask ourselves what we would be willing to LOSE for equality.”
She then poses the following questions: Would you be willing to send your children to a lower performing school? To move to a less safe neighborhood? How about a neighborhood in the middle of a food desert? How about men earning less so women can earn more? What about giving up the ability to make these decisions at all? And Stone then takes it one step further: “I believe that each of us must begin to face the opportunities we have been given … We must face the ways we allow ourselves to discriminate.”
But is that really the case? While introspection is important, we don’t think that feeling guilty for the opportunities we have is the answer, and we reject Stone’s premise that we need to give up anything in order for others to be treated fairly. Opening of our eyes to ongoing inequality should help encourage us to do what we can to enable others to gain and achieve equally.
As incomplete and imperfect as it was, President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society and its landmark Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act expanded opportunities and helped address some of the lingering racial inequities in our country. The Great Society was a great experiment. Although it didn’t achieve the level of racial equality and opportunity its proponents hoped for, it had a lot of successes. And we are better off for it than not having had it.
Our challenge moving forward is to build on those successes as we continue to strive toward the creation of a more perfect union — which includes and encourages racial equality and unity. When we achieve that goal, we will all be winners.