In Race and Racisms, we have focused on the history of the idea of race, the changing nature of racism, and various ideologies and institutions that perpetuate racism. Where do we go from here? Now that we know the extent of racism in U.S. society, what do we do about it? Moreover, is a singular focus on race and racism enough?

Perspectives on Racial Justice

What is racial justice? There is no correct answer to this question, as racial justice would look different depending on your perspective, but we will define it broadly here as the creation of a society devoid of racial oppression. For some people, racial justice involves passing effective laws and policies that create a non-discriminatory society. These laws also look different according to your perspective. For some, racial justice would require reparations for people who have suffered racial injustices. For others, strengthening civil rights law is the most effective strategy. Still others advocate for a human rights perspective. And, as we will discuss below, some people advocate for a much more expansive perspective on racial justice—one that addresses gender and economic justice as well. For many thinkers, racial justice involves the eradication of white supremacy.

Recognition, Responsibility, Reconstruction, and Reparations

Racism has caused tremendous harm, and some argue that this harm merits a response. One proposed solution involves providing compensation for victims of racism. Eric Yamamoto (2009) delineates four steps on the path to racial justice from this perspective: recognition, responsibility, reconstruction, and reparations. He argues that these four steps are necessary to begin to redress the harms created by racism. Let’s take a look at each step so that we can evaluate the extent to which they might lead us to racial justice.

Recognition is the first step, where we recognize the harms created by racism. This step requires empathy, meaning that society is able to understand the anger, hurt, and material loss caused by racism. For example, empathetic mothers of white boys would empathize with how mothers of black boys felt after George Zimmerman shot Trayvon Martin and walked free. Recognition extends to the particularity of different groups’ experiences, such as how African Americans feel about slavery, Native Americans about genocide, and Japanese Americans about internment.

Recognition is an essential first step, as it allows us to reflect on the gravity of racial harms. We must come to terms with the fact that these wrongdoings continue to affect people’s lives and outlooks today. Recognition permits everyone to see, for example, that African Americans are unlikely to take jokes about slavery or lynching lightly and that Native Americans are deeply offended by sports team names such as the Redskins.

Responsibility asks people to acknowledge that someone is responsible for harms inflicted on racial groups. The question of responsibility often comes up with regard to the enslavement of African Americans. Who is responsible? Individual slave-owners?

Their descendants? The financial institutions that supported slavery? All whites? The United States government? How do we think about responsibility for slavery given that it was abolished in the United States in 1865? These are difficult questions, yet it is clear that the United States has yet to atone for the injustice of slavery.

The fact that it is difficult to figure out who is responsible for slavery does not mean that we should avoid the conversation. Instead, it is only through dialogue that we, as a society, can begin to understand who is responsible, and what the consequent response should be.

Reconstruction, the third dimension of racial justice, involves acting on the acknowledgement that harm has been committed. Once you recognize that harm has been committed and figure out who should be held responsible, the next step involves an action.

One form this can take is an apology. In 1995, the Southern Baptist Convention issued a resolution apologizing “to all African Americans for condoning and/or perpetuating individual and systemic racism in our lifetime.” In 2009, the U.S. Congress issued a formal apology for slavery. The apology, however, came with the caveat that it was not meant to provide the basis for reparations. The idea of reconstruction raises the question of how the United States can act on the acknowledgements that slavery is part of our history and that Native Americans’ lands were unlawfully taken.

Reparations, the fourth and ultimate dimension of racial justice, refers to the act of repairing damage and providing restitution for past harms. A program of reparations has three main objectives: acknowledgement of past injustice, redress for the injustice, and closure.