Naomi Zack to Deliver James Weldon Johnson Distinguished Lecture on April 6

Zack on Applicative Justice, Race, and Mixed Race

  By Susan Carini

Each Spring, the Johnson Institute sponsors a major address by a distinguished race scholar and public intellectual. The 2017 speaker is Naomi Zack, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Oregon. The Annual James Weldon Johnson Distinguished Lecture will take place on April 6, from 4:00 to 5:30 p.m., in the Cannon Chapel at Emory University. For more information or to register, visit

Naomi Zack

Zack, professor of philosophy at the University of Oregon, is the author and editor of a dozen books, including White Privilege and Black Rights: The Injustice of US Police Racial Profiling and Homicide (2015), TheEthics and Mores of Race: Equality after the History of Philosophy (2011), and Ethics for Disaster (2009). Her latest volume is The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy and Race (2017), the largest collection ever by scholars of race in philosophy. It includes essays by two Emory philosophy faculty members, Cynthia Willett and George Yancy.

Zack’s early work focused, in her words, “on the biological emptiness of human racial categories and the conundrum of mixed-race identities.” Since 2010, her scholarship has turned to concrete injustice and abstract theories of injustice that extend beyond race. Recently, Zack has offered critiques of white privilege in a variety of venues, including the interview she granted titled “White Privilege and Racial Injustice.”

The centerpiece of Zack’s talk, “Applicative Justice, Race, and Mixed Race,” will be her book Applicative Justice: A Pragmatic Empirical Approach to Racial Injustice (2016). For political philosophy and related fields, the present justice paradigm stems from John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice, published in 1971. Inspired by David Hume, Rawls presented a view of justice forged in the social contract tradition, one in which individuals would advance their ends through cooperation with others. Though his work was admired in some quarters, it also inspired intense criticism by scholars who considered his view of justice impractical, blind to the fact that just law and unjust practice coexist as a fact of political life. 

Zack is squarely in the latter camp, believing that “what people in reality care about is not justice as an ideal, but injustice as a correctible ill.” Her touchstone is a critical insight from Arthur Bentley’s 1908 The Process of Government: A Study of Social Pressures, which describes political life as a constant process of contending interest groups. “That,” notes Zack, “allows for a resolution of the contradiction between formal legal equality for US minorities and post–civil rights practical inequality.”

Zack’s term applicative justice zeroes in on the unfair application of justice and calls for “the design of effective measures to equalize such treatment.” Acknowledging in her introduction the range of injustices—including police racial profiling, vulnerable populations in disaster, the criminalization of poor blacks and homeless people, cruel and exploitative treatment of undocumented immigrants, violence against women, and substandard K–12 education in racially and ethnically segregated residential neighborhoods—Zack has chosen a primary focus on African Americans and poverty.  

Book Cover

Even as Zack looks forward to covering the main ideas of her book in the lecture, she also is excited about going further. In the context of applicative justice, she intends to introduce injustice theory in such a way as to demonstrate contemporary relevance concerning political identities. She will use James Weldon Johnson’s Confessions of an Ex-Colored Man to talk about mixed race and then conclude with reflections on the perils of mixed-race experience looking back on the Obama presidency.

Zack brings the unique perspective of someone who, for 20 years, chose not to work inside the academy. Indeed, in the essay “Why I Write So Many Books about Race,” she describes life as a freelance writer and independent film producer, living in various spots in the US and London. Asked about the separate contributions of the academy and social activism to the fight for justice, Zack responds,  “The academy keeps the record and slowly pushes the envelope in many progressive ways. Yes, at some point these changes need to make it into the real world—and they do, bit by bit.”