Is justice a process or an outcome?

Black and white photo of Rutger Ceballos
Rutger Ceballos is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Political Science at the University of Washington. Rutger’s primary research focuses on the construction of race, labor, and citizenship during Reconstruction and the late-nineteenth century in the United States. His current project explores the politics of land and labor in the post-Emancipation moment in an attempt to recover a radical anti-racist vision of Black land ownership and labor rights. In addition to his work on Reconstruction, Rutger has worked on the history of labor organizing in the Pacific Northwest, Marx and Marxism, and the political thought of Frederick Douglass.

Rutger received a M.A. in the History of Political Thought from Queen Mary, University of London and his B.A. in Political Science, International Studies, and History from the University of Washington. Before beginning his Ph.D., Rutger worked as a union organizer and labor activist in the Pacific Northwest.

Beyond Outcome or Process – A Reflection on the Reimagining of Justice

Americans love courtroom dramas. The shock of the initial crime. The ‘who-dun-it’ suspense of the investigation. The marginalized and voiceless victim or the wrongly accused defendant. The heroic lawyer, filled with righteous passion, who marshals the full weight of the law to achieve justice for their client. Something about this Manichean struggle between good and evil, so starkly rendered in the antagonism of a courtroom, captures the imaginations of the public. Even when the simplicity of these morality tales is troubled by more critical plot lines concerning the systemic or structural corruption, the outcome of courtroom dramas is often the same – a verdict. Good or bad, just or unjust, legal judgments often try to paper over complexity, and obscure the structural and institutional issues at the heart of injustices.
The American preoccupation with the courtroom as the epicenter of justice is not limited to fictional Sorkinian monologues and legal thrillers. For many, real-world questions of justice often hinge on the outcome of a trial or a Supreme Court decision. You need only to look at the recent protests sparked by the exoneration of the white police officers who killed Breonna Taylor or the political brawls over Supreme Court nominations to understand the clear association of the courtroom with justice. Even when elevated to a topic of philosophical abstraction, as my colleague Grace Reinke reminds us, theories of justice are often reduced to a procedure or framework whose objective is the consistent production of a clear, logical, and decisive outcome. We should ask ourselves what we lose when our popular, political, and theoretical discourse around justice assumes that it is, as Christopher Schell argues, “a static and bimodal state, in which it is either present or absent.” As all participants have noted, this reductive approach confines concepts of justice to institutions and the law, limiting our political, social, and moral imaginations.
If we cannot rely solely on legal judgements or institutional processes for our understanding of justice, where then should we turn? How might we reimagine our civic discourse to expand and deepen our engagement with concepts of justice? Indeed, can we rescue ‘justice’ from its conceptual limits, and use it to resist the violent, dominating, and exploitative systems that so often zealously claim the mantle of ‘justice?’
The reflections presented in this colloquium offer us paths toward a critical reconceptualization of justice which moves beyond binary processes or outcomes. In particular, they encourage us to think of justice from the perspective of those outside its traditional boundaries or those who are the targets of the ‘justice’ systems. For example, Chandan Reddy draws our attention to the essential “coloniality of justice”, that is to say, its complicity in providing the ideological justification for settler colonial accumulation and expropriation. If justice applies only to those considered within the bounds of society, then theories of justice will reproduce and reinforce the values of that society. As Reddy notes, in the case of the Anglo- American tradition, theories of justice often serve to protect heteronormative gender relations, whiteness, private property, and the state at the expense of those deemed as threatening or subordinate to society. Inclusion of subaltern groups in society without the radical reimagining of social relations and values rarely results in the creation of a more just world, but rather in the continuing subjection of racialized and marginalized people, albeit in closer proximity to the state. This demands a new question – if inclusion into a society founded on profoundly flawed theories of justice is undesirable, where then should we look for new theories of justice?
One option is the look to history, and specifically, to the histories of those whose voices and actions have been silenced or erased. The American liberal historical narrative emphasizes moments of justice while silencing or erasing dissent and counter-narratives. Nowhere is this perhaps clearer than in accounts of Emancipation and its aftermath. As an example of justice as outcome, few events in American history can compete with the destruction of chattel slavery, both by state force and, with notable exceptions, in law. Yet, Emancipation, as an outcome and a process, failed to fundamentally remake the social relations which had produced, sustained, and profited from the enslavement, commodification, and expropriation of Black people and their labor. In her work of narrative and archival disruption, Scenes of Subjection, Saidiya Hartman lays out the consequences of an Emancipation which proclaimed justice without remaking the world that had created injustice:
The proximity of black and free necessarily incited fundamental changes in the national fabric. The question persists as to whether it is possible to unleash freedom from the history of property that secured it, for the security of property that undergirded the abstract equality of rights bearers was achieved, in large measure, through black bondage.1
The demands for justice, and more importantly, the demands for a remaking of society by formerly enslaved Black people in the immediate aftermath of Emancipation reveal to us that justice is not simply a process or an outcome. Bayley Wyat, a Virginia freedman, speaking to an assembly of freedpeople and Freedmen’s Bureau agents in December 1866, argues that true justice demands material and psychological reparations beyond nominal freedom –
I may state to all our friends, and to all our enemies, that we have a right to the land where we are located. For why? I tell you. Our wives, our children, our husbands, have been sold over and over again to purchase the lands we now locates upon; for that reason we have a divine right to the land.2
Wyat’s demand for rights to the land upon which he and other were enslaved is based not on legal claims to property ownership or a state-sanctioned process for acquiring land. Rather Wyat, along with many other freedpeople, demanded land, control over their labor, bodily autonomy, and communal independence in order to remake the society which had so recently enslaved them. I take Wyat’s demands to be representative of a dissident theory of reparative justice which stands in stark opposition to the Anglo-American tradition’s privileging of legal claims and inclusion. Reparative justice demands more than changes to laws and institutional processes – it is insurgent and disruptive, demanding social transformation and material redistribution from the society which was the cause of the injustice. In this sense, reparative justice is not about the restoration of rights or simple compensation, rather it is the demand to remake society while remaining acutely attuned to the historical processes which produced and informed the present.
In our current state, dissident articulations of justice continue to move beyond the limits of contemporary law, pushing the boundaries of our political and social imaginations. Those who wish to reimagine justice should not confine themselves solely to a courtroom or a set of institutions. At their best, calls for justice are the unrealized demands for a new world where the concept of justice itself loses its limited legal character and is instead cultivated as a political, material, and social force.
1 Saidiya V. Hartman, Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 2010), 119.
2 Bayley Wyat, “Report of a Speech by a Virginia Freedman; and Freedmen’s Bureau Superintendent of the 5th District of Virginia to the Headquarters of the Virginia Freedmen’s Bureau Assistant Commissioner”, December 1866 Quoted in Berlin, Ira, Hahn, Steven, Hayden, René, and Freedmen Southern Society Project. Freedom, a Documentary History of Emancipation, 1861-1867. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1982, 336-339.