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  • Social Justice and Neoliberal Discourse
  • Bobby M. Wilson (bio)

In the era of neoliberalism, human beings are made accountable for their predicaments or circumstances according to the workings of the market as opposed to finding faults in larger structural and institutional forces like racism and economic inequality. The market exchange is an ethic in itself, capable of acting as a guide for all of human action (Harvey 2005). In many ways, the discourse of neoliberalism represents a radical inversion of the notion of "human agency," as conceived through the prophetic politics of Martin Luther King. As originally conceived, human agency focused on people's capability of doing things that can make a difference, that is, to exercise some sort of power and self-reliance. As a central concern among many in the social sciences, this concept sought to expose the power of human beings. Reverend Martin Luther King's prophetic politics were determinedly "this worldly" and social in their focus. He encouraged people to direct their attention to matters of social justice rather than concern for personal well-being or salvation. He believed in the power of people to make a difference.

But the concept of "justice" has been reconstructed to fit neoliberal political and economic objectives. This reconstruction is part of a larger discourse to reconstitute liberalism to include human conduct. The invisible hand of the market not only allocates resources but also the conduct of citizens. Economie agency is no longer just about the market allocation of resources, but the allocation of people into cultural worlds. This represents a radical inversion of the economic agent as conceived by the liberalism of Adam Smith. As agents, humans are implicated as players and partners in the market game. The context in which individuals define themselves is privatized rather than publicized; the focus of concerns is on the self rather than the collective. Power operates internally, not externally, by inducing people to aim for "self-improvement." The effect has been to negate the "social" in issues of "justice" or "injustice." Individual subjects are rendered responsible, shifting the responsibility for social risk (unemployment, poverty, etc.) to the individual.

Black inner city spaces compete freely within a deregulated global market. Central cities of large metropolitan areas have become the epicenter of segregation. In 1988, approximately 55% of black students in the South attended schools that were 50% to 100% minorities. By 2000, almost 70% attended such schools. Only 15% of intensely segregated white schools are schools of concentrated poverty, whereas 88% of the intensely segregated racial minority schools are schools of concentrated poverty. Fifty years after the Brown decision, we continue to heap more disadvantages on children in poor communities. The community where a student resides [End Page 97] and goes to school is now the best predictor of whether that student will go to college and succeed after graduation. High school graduation rates in the South were lowest in the most isolated black-majority districts—those separated by both race and poverty. Across the South, we have created public and private systems that encourage the accumulation of wealth and privilege in mostly white and socially isolated communities separated by ever greater distances from the increasingly invisible working poor (Orfield and Mei 2004).

The most fundamental difference between today's segregated black communities and those of the past is the much higher level of joblessness (Wilson 1997). Black unemployment and poverty level consistently remains at twice the level of the total population. Access to jobs, already disproportionately tenuous for black workers, has become even more constricted in the current era of global capital. Without meaningful work, the impact of racially segregated communities is much more pervasive and devastating. The vast majority of intensely racial and ethnic segregated minority places face a growing surplus labor determined to survive by any means necessary. Two-thirds of the people in prison are now racial and ethnic minorities. The proportion of young black males who are incarcerated, on parole, or on probation nationwide continues to reach record levels. Blacks represent 12.3% of the total population but make up 43.7% of the incarcerated population. The number of black men in prisons increased from 508,800 in...


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