How Should We Think About ‘Historical Injustices’?

Identity, citizenship, and conceptions of the self

31st December 2020
James Hodgson

Apologising for acts of historical wrongdoing has become increasingly typical in recent decades. But what does it mean to take responsibility for historical injustice? Here, James Hodgson asks:

  • What role do movements like Black Lives Matter play in promoting concepts such as “white privilege” and the notion of collective atoning for past wrongs?
  • Who has the right to issue public apologies? And who do they speak for?
  • What are the competing conceptions of the person at work in this debate?
  • What does it mean to be a citizen of a democratic state?


In 2020, the killing of George Floyd by a police officer in the American city of Minneapolis sparked protests under the banner of Black Lives Matter. The movement gathered international sympathy but its anger has been directed at those Western societies, including the United States and the United Kingdom, that are said to have benefited from the historical exploitation of colonised peoples, principally though not exclusively through the Atlantic slave trade. These societies, the protestors argue, still uphold systems of discrimination towards people of colour. White people are assumed to occupy a privileged position relative to non-whites, with black people experiencing disadvantage in education, healthcare, and most notably the criminal justice system. According to protestors, to achieve a just society, this systemic racial inequality must be recognised, confronted, and dismantled. 


Regardless of the descriptive accuracy of these claims – and it is certainly true that forms of racial inequality persist in the US and the UK, though important differences exist between them – they have instigated a wave of public apologies from politicians and other leading public figures. Apologising for acts of historical wrongdoing has become increasingly typical in recent decades. These include apologies from politicians for the UK’s historic involvement in the slave trade; from universities and other institutions that were the beneficiaries of the wealth generated by the trade; from museums and other heritage organisations which act as custodians of buildings built with profits from the slave trade, or which amassed their collections of artefacts thanks to colonial rule; and from corporations wishing to distance themselves from racist views. Perhaps the most extreme form of these apologies was the spectacle of politicians “taking the knee” as an act of contrition and to pledge their support for victims of racial oppression. 


Predictably, these public displays have sparked a backlash. Their critics see them as pointless gestures that are, at best, rather cynical public relations exercises, and at worst designed to mask poor business practices. While such criticisms are reasonable, I want to suggest that something more substantive lurks behind this debate on the politics of racial identity. When public apologies are made by politicians, they are often couched in terms of collective responsibility for historical injustice. That is, the apology takes the form of a spokesperson apologising on behalf of others. As members of the public on whose behalf politicians claim to speak, we might take exception to this. Just who is the “we” who are supposed to be sorry? After all, haven’t the perpetrators of these injustices been dead for decades, or even centuries? Why, therefore, should the living assume guilt in their absence? To answer these questions – or to at least be clear on what is at stake when answering them – we must be clear on the competing conceptions of the person at work in this debate. 


The choosing self versus the constructed self


The Black Lives Matter movement has moved beyond assertions of the immorality of discrimination and police brutality in the here and now and has given rise to discussions of racial injustice more broadly. Specifically, there has been much talk this past year of the importance of historical injustice, of “white privilege”, and of atoning for the wrongs of the past. It is important at the outset to note two aspects of this move. Firstly, it is a move away from political deliberation, which is orientated towards the future, concerning matters over which we have some control, to moral judgements over historical events, which lie beyond our power to alter. Secondly, it tacitly introduces notions of racial essentialism over the discussion. Obviously, it would be nonsensical to discuss issues of racial inequality without reference to race. The doctrine of essentialism, however, places emphasis on what is taken to be the “essence” of a person’s identity. Various aspects of one’s physical body (for example, one’s skin colour, one’s sex, or one’s disability) or other characteristics (one’s sexual orientation, one’s culture) and the social meanings attached to them, are taken to be the primary or even the sole determinants of a person’s identity. 


“History, community, and culture matter more for the formation of our identity than the liberal individualist conception allows for.”


In other words, the identity of one’s self is an essentially social construction. There is much to be said for this conception of the self, particularly when it comes to matters of race. When asking questions like ‘Is race even real?’ it is important to bear in mind the social hierarchies which accompanied the categorisation of people into different racial groups. Clearly, the concept of race has a social reality, even if it does not have a biological reality. Arguing that one’s race is not an important part of one’s identity to someone whose life chances have been determined by their categorisation in a racial hierarchy would be churlish in the extreme. (To be clear, I am not arguing here whether or not any particular society embodies such a hierarchy. Rather, my purpose is to excavate the conceptual underpinnings of the debate which lead to much confusion.) For many people, race is still a reality with enormous consequences. Indeed, it is a reality because of its consequences. 


We might usefully categorise the racial essentialist point of view as a sub-species of communitarianism (1). There is something of an irony here, as opponents of this view often identify themselves as “communitarians”, too. But communitarianism is an umbrella term, used to refer to a wide variety of philosophical and political positions. We can distinguish between those communitarians who simply place ethical value on the importance of community to human life, and those who adopt a more foundational view of the role of contingent social forces in the formation of the self. Moreover, the communitarian conception of the self is one that cannot be extricated from its spatial-temporal location. We are the people we are because of the social forces that have imprinted upon us, providing an ethical framework for our decision-making and the kinds of projects that we pursue and see as valuable. My identity cannot be separated from these wider social forces which, either positively or negatively, have formed my development. 


Against the communitarian conception, we have what might be called the liberal individualist view. According to this view, I am a choosing self, unconstrained by the morally arbitrary factors of my birth and society. I am the bearer of rights and interests, nothing more or less. After all, the circumstances of my birth were not of my choosing, and therefore the history of my society is not my own. I cannot, the argument runs, reasonably be held responsible for events over which I had no control, including events that occurred long before my birth, even if they were committed by my direct ancestors. The actions of distant others, separated by time, have no bearing on my moral commitments or conception of the good life. Such attachments are morally arbitrary from the point of view of liberal individualism. It is the job of the state, moreover, to act as an umpire between myself and other individuals, to arbitrate in disputes, to make sure everyone adheres to common laws, and to preserve my inherent rights. This conception of the self is commonly invoked by those who argue that public apologies are meaningless gestures simply because no living person can rightly be held accountable. 


“Societies are not simply clubs that one can join at will.”


The communitarian conception is the more empirically plausible, but it is flawed in certain key respects. Firstly, it removes any sense of agency, not only from the individual but from society at large. The social categories into which we are fitted are not, after all, natural facts, but artefacts from a previous regime. They can be changed and reformed depending upon changing social attitudes, though likely as not without struggle. Secondly, the racial essentialist perspective which cleaves to arbitrary though meaningful characteristics of the person is not without its own troubled history. Indeed, the practice of reducing whole groups of human beings to certain characteristics has itself been used to exclude and to oppress. Thirdly, the politicised form of this conception runs the risk of marginalising commonality between groups as much as it risks homogenising identities within groups. The social bonds and bridges necessary to overcome barriers to political emancipation, as well as forming a normal part of human intercourse, are rarely won by communities in isolation, but more usually in concordance with others. Fourthly, we might say that the conception is over-determined inasmuch as it claims that my identity is formed by my circumstances. It would perhaps be more accurate to say that my identity is informed by my circumstances, but they are not always in the driver’s seat. 


Next, to address the liberal individualist conception, there are manifold philosophical and sociological difficulties of attempting to disentangle one’s self from all contingent circumstances (2). While the individualist position appeals to our Enlightenment notions of the individual as the ultimate unit of social justification and personal responsibility, and as the bearer of moral rights and duties, such that it has become embedded in our “common sense morality”, the communitarian position appeals to a different kind of common-sense notion about where we come from and about our place in the world. Humans are, after all, social animals, and we do not emerge into the world ex nihilo. We are creatures that belong in particular times and places, even if we are sometimes ill-fitted to the times we are born into. Our psychological make-up, our ethical and spiritual values, and our personal tastes and preferences are all informed by our upbringing and the society in which we live. This seems obvious, too. We are not ethereal choosing selves; our identity is tied to our contingent, historically freighted circumstances. And while this is not the sum of ourselves, it is perhaps the greater and more meaningful part of ourselves. In short, history, community, and culture matter more for the formation of our identity than the liberal individualist conception allows for. (Indeed, it is not unreasonable to suggest that a commitment to the culture of liberal individualism in the West has been nothing short a disaster for workers, families, and communities, given the social atomisation and economic dislocation it appears to foster.)


“History, after all, is not simply a menu from which we can pick and choose.”



Put differently, each conception regards the relationship between the person and society from a different temporal perspective. The liberal individualist views the person as already formed when entering into society, which must be assembled as a system for the safeguarding of my inherent rights. According to this view, society is analogous to a group of people stranded on a desert island after a plane crash. We each have our own beliefs, ideas about what matters in life, and we must work out the terms for our mutual cooperation and for deciding what happens when these beliefs come into conflict. Contrary to this, the communitarian views society as prior to the person, acting as a web of social forces which sculpt the person as if out of clay, determining one’s projects, defining one’s rights, and forming one’s sense of self. While the communitarian conception is the more empirically plausible, the liberal individualist conception is more attractive, at least philosophically. However, I want to suggest that neither conception can help us to make sense of the moral emotions that surround questions of historical injustices. 


From selves to citizens


One example of the limitations of both conceptions is in the question of whether we should rightly take pride in the efforts of our forebears, a debate which returns with depressing regularity every Remembrance Sunday. Instinctively, one wants to say ‘yes’. Why should this be so? According to the liberal individualist, to take pride or shame in the actions of previous generations is morally unintelligible. It is at this moment that the liberal individualist emancipates themselves from the dead hand of history, but at the cost of membership of a political society. Societies are not simply clubs that one can join at will. As we have seen, for better or worse, societies provide the ingredients out of which human beings are made. The emancipation which the liberal individualist achieves is therefore an illusory freedom. To cut oneself off from history is to impoverish oneself in ways that are not immediately obvious but are nevertheless deeply harmful. For one thing, it represents the freedom to be exploited as a unit of labour rather than forming common bonds with one’s fellow citizens. And it is, ultimately, to deny the achievements of one’s forebears by refusing to claim ownership of them, and in doing so refusing to take one’s share of responsibility for sustaining the less imperfect world they created. We should not, therefore, deny feelings of pride at the achievements of our forebears any more than we should deny feeling shame at the crimes of our forebears. History, after all, is not simply a menu from which we can pick and choose.


If the communitarian conception of the racial essentialist is normatively unappealing, then the liberal individualist conception is culturally impoverished. Where, then, are we to turn? One might say that both conceptions have gained currency in popular debate not because of their academic pedigrees nor because of their appeals to common sense, but because the notion of citizenship has been so devalued that we lack the conceptual tools to make sense of our shared history. While generations of individuals have born and died, the British state itself has endured. And it is precisely because we do not feel ownership over the state that we regard apologies for its historical crimes as alien to us. In doing so, we often unwittingly endorse the liberal individualist point of view. This is a mistake. 


It is a false choice to argue, as many do implicitly, that either we live in a world of guilt for the crimes of our ancestors, or we cut ourselves off from the wellsprings of our culture. What connection do I share with Emily Davison, Edward Colston, those citizen-soldiers who stormed the beaches of Normandy, and those merchants who committed atrocities during Britain’s involvement in the slave trade? Nothing, other than we are all part of the same political community that stretches backwards into the past and forwards into the future. As such, we share an identity that goes beyond the simple facts of geography and creates the possibility of moral emotions such as pride and shame, solidarity and resentment. While I bear no responsibility for the actions of my fellow citizens, that does not stop me feeling pride or shame in their actions, much as I would feel for a family member who does something praiseworthy or blameworthy. 


“We are all part of the same political community that stretches backwards into the past and forwards into the future.”


What makes a political community? We might in the first instance say the bonds of citizenship which go beyond simple legal rights and duties; it is to recognise a part of ourselves in another. This does not, it should be noted, necessarily entail that we feel any personal affection for our fellow citizens. To state the obvious, we can and often do feel indifference, disdain, even loathing and contempt for other members of the political community. There is no obligation for citizens to be friends with one another. We can rightly demand that other citizens be imprisoned if they break the law, shun them if they behave immorally, and simply avoid them altogether. It should also be clear that citizenship does not align with race or ethnic identity. It may align with national identity and language, but in the context of the modern world, the nation is as much a product of the state as the state is a product of the nation(3). What matters is that we are members of the same political community, one of shared authority and memory.  


If we are to be ethically consistent, then our feelings of pride in the shared accomplishments of our forebears must be matched with shame at the immoralities of past generations. The two naturally go together, even though reactionary forces on both the political right and left would drive a wedge between them. It is through recovering the language of citizenship, and our common political heritage, that we can make sense of such complex moral emotions. We can also see where our obligations lie in the here and now. As John Bew argues in his excellent recent biography of Clement Attlee, the innovations of the post-war welfare state were seen as a material advancement in pursuit of this ideal; an affirmation of what we, as citizens, owe to each other (4). 


In more concrete terms, the ideal of citizenship should guide our thinking not only in how we discuss the fate of the National Health Service – which has in many ways become a rhetorical substitute for such larger questions – but also in how we address the deficiencies in the social care system and precarious employment of so many of our fellow citizens made visible during the Covid-19 induced lockdown. It should guide us on more fundamental constitutional questions, such as how the constituent parts of the United Kingdom relate to each other, in light of the asymmetric devolution of governance, as well as international questions, such as how we relate to British Commonwealth countries in terms of trade, economic assistance, and anti-corruption initiatives. (One public apology which should have been forthcoming but was noticeable by its absence was for the Amritsar Massacre, the centenary of which occurred in 2019 (5). At a time when the British government wishes to strengthen trade links with India, this was a missed opportunity to heal old wounds and to demonstrate solidarity with the world’s largest democracy.) Furthermore, the ideal of citizenship should be at the forefront of our minds when addressing the treatment and resettlement of Hong Kong residents who identify strongly as British citizens but were cruelly disowned by previous British governments. 


If the dismal events of 2020 are to have one positive outcome, it must be hoped that it is a rediscovery of the ideal of citizenship; what it means to be a citizen of a democratic state, with all the historical benefits and burdens that entails; and its practical consequences in a too often less-than-ideal world. 


James Hodgson is an independent researcher who holds a PhD in Politics from the University of York.


(1) For a classic account of the various philosophical and political positions associated with communitarianism see Mulhall, S. and A. Swift (1992) Liberals & Communitarians (Oxford: Blackwell).

(2) See Seidentop, L. (2017) Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism (London: Penguin).

(3) See Scott, J.C. (1998) Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press).

(4) Bew, J. (2016) Citizen Clem: A Biography of Attlee (London: Quercus).

(5) For an excellent recent account, see Wagner, K. (2019) Amritsar 1919: An Empire of Fear and the Making of a Massacre (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press).

Photo by Alex Motoc on Unsplash.