Since I started this personal reflection justice, why we engage and why we don’t, I have come to realize there are no easy answers. One of the things I have come to realize is that in some respects we do not even realize that we are being inhumane. Several years ago, I was at a meeting and overheard two philosophers talking about slavery. One philosopher said that the perfect form of slavery was when one enjoyed being a slave. The other philosopher disagreed and said that the perfect form of slavery was when you no longer realized that you were even enslaved. The ironic part is that when we think of the word slavery we do not think of ourselves, but in some respect, each of us is enslaved in a system that trains us to be inhumane, conditions us throughout our lives to contribute to the inhumanity of others. Whether one is part of a dominant or subordinate group in our culture, the enslavement exists and often times we are not even aware of our role in the system or of the system itself.
Capitalism has contributed to the inhumanity. As a sociologist whose work I use when I am teaching, Alan Johnson, pointed out:
The dynamics of capitalism produce not only enormous amounts of wealth, but high-and increasing-levels of inequality, both within societies and globally. The richest 10 percent of the U.S. population holds more than two-thirds of all the wealth, more than 90 percent of business assets, and almost all the stocks and bonds. In 1998, the richest top 20 percent of all households received almost half of all the income, and the richest 40 percent received almost three-quarters, leaving just a quarter of all income to be divided among the remaining 60 percent of all households.
Inadvertently, those who are part of the 60% find themselves pitted against each other for control of 25% of the remaining income in the world. It is out of this sense of desperation that people find themselves falling into patterns of behavior that contribute to the inhumanity of others. One can see how this comes to be in daily life, by watching the ways that people’s behaviors change when playing the game Monopoly.
Capitalism and class differentials are not the only factors that contribute to inhumanity. The social categories we are placed in also contribute to our inhumanity. I say placed in because sometimes how we identify differs from how others identify us. The categories we are placed in contribute to the extent to which our humanity is valued or devalued. For example, a female acquaintance of mine has a rather masculine physique, appearance, and behaviors. Because of this, people often perceive her as being a lesbian, despite the fact that she identifies as heterosexual. The way they treat her is altered because of the social category they place her in.
Those social categories, which are viewed as of greater value in society, are granted privileges that those who are not viewed as being members of those categories are denied. Thus, there is a paradoxical relationship between privilege and oppression. The privileges granted to the members of one category come at the cost of the oppression of others. However, all too often, those who are in positions of privilege do not even realize their perception of reality is not the same for everyone else. The insidious thing about privilege is that all too often those who have it do not even realize that they are privileged. A colleague of mine, Dr. Michael Kimmel, tells the story of being at a party in the 1980’s. One Euro-American woman was arguing that all women were equally oppressed. One African-American woman argued this was not true. She asked the Euro-American woman what she saw when she looked in the mirror in the morning. She replied that she saw a woman. The African American woman explained that was the difference, she saw a Black woman. The Euro-American women never had to think about her racial identity, the African American woman never had the privilege of not being able to think about it.
We have this tendency in our culture to blame people for not having achieved as much or done as well as others. We see things at an individual level and rarely look at the systemic forces that make it more difficult for some to achieve or have access to what seems within the grasp of others. Rather than be willing to critically look at these issues and the ways that they are embedded within larger institutions and systems of injustice and inequality, people tend to try to get off the hook by denying and/or minimizing the situation or blaming the situation on the “victim.” This is just one of the ways we try to avoid practicing justice in our lives. I am so grateful I have worked to stop blaming people for the inequalities in their life. Perhaps in part that has come because of the injustices I live with in my own life.
 ibid, 4