Untying Knots: History, Injustice, and Political Responsibility

Past injustices have a powerful hold over the present. Settler-colonialism and racial oppression in the United States activated persistent, community differentiating outcomes that continue to undermine political, social, and economic conditions in the present. I untangle the fraught discourse on historical injustice in order to understand what counts as the historical injury and injustice, who counts as wronged and responsible, and why history matters. 

Through the dissertation, I provide a comprehensive account of historical injustice and present responsibility that identifies the temporal and group-affecting dimensions of the past injustices carried out against Indigenous nations and African American communities in the United States.

The dissertation makes four, principle contributions. First, I argue that intergenerational communities are vulnerable to a distinctly temporal category of injury and injustice. Over time, a community’s shared matrix of resources, relationships, values, and practices is undermined while an asymmetrical power relation between social groups is maintained. Second, I show that two, prominent, theoretical orientations to historical injustice proceed from a conception of time and causation (temporal structure) that misdirects the normative inquiry. The frameworks of assessment are incongruent with the temporal structure of historical injustice. Third, I expose a gap in the literature on collective responsibility and argue that some social groups have a distinct social structure—a dense network of intergenerational interaction—that may lack collective agency while continuing to be the source of shared responsibility. Fourth, I argue that present responsibility for historical injustice turns on the acceptance of risk in exercising agency, the wrong of burdening others with one’s own risks, and the negligence of a collective failure to respond to path-dependent or otherwise predictable consequences of past injustice.

The core arguments of the dissertation advance research in political theory on: historical injustice and intergenerational groups, settler-colonial injustice, the politics of time, racial oppression and systemic inequality, collective agency, relational injustice, and responsibility for past injustice. 

Dissertation Committee: Stephen Macedo, Alan Patten, Anna Stilz