top of page

Conflicting Visions of Justice

By Sean Callahan, News Editor

“Traditional justice is about ensuring an impartial process. It’s not about guaranteeing certain results. Social justice is the opposite of this. Rules and standards are set aside in hopes of achieving certain results,” Jason Riley said.

Riley spoke on Tuesday, March 21 at 7:30 p.m. at the Fred Rogers Center. His talk was a part of the McKenna School’s Center for Political and Economic Thought lecture.

Riley is a public speaker, a journalist, a member of the editorial board at the Wall Street Journal, and a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a public policy think tank. He has worked for USA Today and the Buffalo News. He received a bachelor’s degree in English from the State University of New York at Buffalo.

(Callahan) Jason Riley spoke on Tuesday, Mar. 21, as a part of the McKenna School Center for Political and Economic Thought lecture series.

He has also published multiple books, in which he argued for a free-market-oriented U.S. immigration system, discussed governmental efforts to help the black underclass, and touched on other perceived issues such as black economic progress prior to the COVID-19 pandemic and why black political success has supposedly not translated into more economic advancement.

In his talk, Riley challenged so-called ‘social justice’ views on racial inequality and criticized several policy beliefs, such as ending standardized testing and promoting the welfare system. He structured his talk through the ideas and observations of Thomas Sowell, an economist, social theorist, and senior fellow of the Hoover Institute, a public policy think tank. Riley mostly referenced Sowell’s book “The Quest for Cosmic Justice” as he made his remarks.

Riley began with a different book written by Sowell, “A Conflict of Visions”. Sowell believes there are two visions of human nature that drive people’s ideological views on ideas such as freedom, equality, and justice. There is the constrained view of human nature, which Sowell regards as tragic. This view holds that mankind is flawed. Since we can’t truly solve large scale issues such as poverty, racism, and war, we need to create institutions and processes that help us deal with these problems. The second view is an unconstrained, utopian view of human nature, which rejects the idea that there is a limit to what humans can achieve.

Riley claimed that social justice adds emphasis from the unconstrained view of human nature, where there are no limits to human betterment and no tradeoffs to address human inequality.

He claimed ‘social justice advocates’ find the outcome important, not the process used to get there, and that advocates think “the process should be rigged if necessary, to get the desired results, even if that means discriminating against certain groups to get that outcome.” Riley used the selection of racial minority students for universities as an example of what he referred to.

“The social justice advocate’s assumption is that equal outcomes are the norm in society, and that where we don’t find it, something nefarious is going on,” Riley said.

He challenged this premise, claiming that inequalities are natural, widespread, and exist everywhere. He feels that discrimination and exploitation don’t explain the outcomes of these inequalities.

Instead, Riley pointed to different groups, cultures, and habits as indicators of existing inequalities, both present and historical. He used Japan as an example, citing their current wealth that now exceeds countries of Western Europe, and poor wealth status “a few generations ago”. He also mentioned inequalities within countries, such as people on the coast versus those in mountainous regions having advantages or disadvantages over others.

Riley said that he does not feel slave labor made America rich, because, he claimed, it benefited some slave owners, not the country as a whole. He also said that historically, Africa was poor before western colonists came to it. He also claimed that North Africa, The Middle East, and Brazil imported more slaves than America, yet they were not as prosperous as America. These are rationales for why Riley feels reparations for slave labor in America are unnecessary.

Referring to the present day, Riley claimed it made sense that there were racial inequalities in school disciplinary rates and hiring practices, citing “a black subculture that rejects attitudes and behaviors that are conducive to academic success”. He mentioned a study that claimed children with poorer parents heard less words than those that had professional or working-class parents. He extended this to black children, who he says, “read half as many books and watch twice as much television as their white counterparts.”

To demonstrate his belief, he presented an anecdote in which his younger niece asked him why he “talked white” and “sounded so smart”.

“Here was a young black girl that already linked speech patterns to intelligence and race,” Riley said. “She already had a sophisticated awareness that as a black person, white sounding speech was to be avoided in her own speech.”

Riley said that 80% of black students in his hometown, New York City, are performing below grade level. He compared black students with Asian students, who he claimed watched less television and read more books than black students, had the highest standardized test scores, and made up over half of all admitted spots in the most selective NYC high schools, despite taking up only 16% of the NYC student population. He used the achievements of Asian students, racial minorities in NYC, as opposed to black students – a majority race in NYC underperforming – to support his claim of a black subculture that is not conducive to learning.

Riley also expressed disapproval for the welfare system, claiming that systems such as this are “multigenerational traps” since they supposedly harm black people by promoting dependency rather than prosperity.

He ended his talk by maintaining that while he is not denying that racism exists or claiming that it does not have an impact on progress, he wants people to consider what impact it has on society compared to other factors. He feels many policymakers and politicians are pretending there are no other factors to racial inequalities beyond discrimination, which will not address the actual causes of inequality.

“To talk about what drives inequality today, we need a discussion about behavior differences. Social justice advocates don’t want to have that discussion,” Riley said. “Values, habits, attitudes, and behaviors that facilitate economic advancement are all a part of this.”

The questions and answers session following Riley’s talk lasted over a half hour. Students, visiting alumni, and a professor participated. Questions touched on Riley’s opinions on organizations focusing on black success and development, challenged his critical views on the welfare system and standardized testing, and inquired about solutions he would implement to the problems he listed in his talk.


bottom of page