The Significance of Addressing Past Wrongs in the Struggle for Social Justice

Johannes Schulz (Frankfurt)

Malte Frøslee Ibsen (Copenhagen)

The last decade has seen an increase not only in calls for monetary reparations but also in struggles surrounding symbols of past injustice. Recently, the Princeton community debated the legacy of former US and Princeton University president Woodrow Wilson, a staunch defender of racist segregation and the namesake of the university’s school of public and international affairs. Activists demanded of the university to publicly acknowledge Wilson’sracist legacy and to remove his name from all university buildings. Similarly, the South African “Rhodes Must Fall” campaign struggled to topple statues of British colonizer and white supremacist Cecil Rhodes at the University of Cape Town (successfully) and Oriel College, Oxford (unsuccessfully). In these and similar cases, activists have placed their calls for removing symbols of the unjust past into a wider context of fighting for social justice. Why are advocates of social justice interested in the past? Can political theory provide a normative defense of their struggles? How might addressing the past matter beyond a backward looking call for corrective justice and how might it matter for overcoming present day social injustice?

The political theory debate on reparations is dominated by two groups. For defenders of the backward looking approach (Bernard Boxill, Daniel Butt) the goal of reparations is to correct for some wrongdoing in the past, usually in the form of monetary compensation. The other group rejects the backward looking approach, claiming that addressing the past merely plays an instrumental, forward looking role in (rhetorically) justifying future redistribution (Leif Wenar, Tommie Shelby, Simon Caney). Many social activists and some political theorists (Catherine Lu, Jeff Spinner-Halev, Iris Young) point towards addressing the unjust past as something that has significance beyond corrective or distributive justice, having to do rather with accounting for structural injustice and/or with overcoming social inequality, that is, the struggle for equal recognition between social groups, whose background is one of enduring inequality.

Submissions might address, but are not restricted to, the following topics:

  • The normative connection between past and present injustice.
  • How addressing the past matters beyond corrective or distributive justice.
  • Which role the use of certain public symbols, images and narratives (about the past) may play in reproducing or overcoming social injustice.
  • In how far struggles for social justice should go beyond the distribution of rights and welfare.
  • What role addressing the unjust past might play within struggles for (or theories) of recognition.
  • How addressing the past may help identifying and overcoming so called structural injustices.
  • The connection between identity politics and calls for (symbolic) reparations.

We are also interested in submissions that criticize the notion of addressing the past as a means to achieving social justice and/or which defend corrective justice or distributive justice approaches to reparations against it. We will also consider submissions that address either the concept of reparations or that of social justice more broadly but will give preference to those who discuss the relation between both concepts.

Please submit an abstract of up to 500 words to Johannes Schulz ( and Malte Ibsen ( by May 25.