Our ongoing search for a better society — fair, productive, and efficient — demands both individual justice and social change.
A recognition of societal inequities - based on race, color, national origin, sex, disability, age, religion, or sexual orientation — is quite compatible with an understanding that individual cases demand individual justice. In any particular instance, anyone can experience discrimination on the job based on the protected characteristics listed above and may accordingly seek legal redress. Moreover, while the law provides only limited remedies for inequities based on wealth (e.g. fair labor laws, including minimum wage, overtime, and equal pay protections), individuals may also face obstacles based on wealth and class — often in a complex interrelationship with race, sex, or other protected characteristics.
However, a recognition of the need for individual justice likewise does not preclude an understanding that some groups in our society face greater obstacles to equal opportunity than others. A recent column in the New Statesman does a nice job of explaining why individual suffering by, say, the campus nerd who is now a Silicon Valley millionaire — typically a white male — does not negate the fact that there are additional societal obstacles to achievement, education, and status for just about everyone else. Nor does the fact that some people of exceptional talent manage to transcend these obstacles (case in point, Barack Obama) mean that they are not there. The point, as I see it, is not to punish white men, but to open up opportunities for everyone, and however painful it might be (not so much, really) that is going to require a little introspection and empathy from the people who take for granted what everybody deserves. Perhaps this is what John F. Kennedy had in mind when he repeated, "To whom much is given, of them much is expected."
Ultimately, it is important to recognize both that the law mandates that every person should be free from discrimination in employment based on such irrelevant characteristics as race and sex and that we have not yet completed our work to change the structure of our society so that everyone has an equal chance regardless of such characteristics.