N.Y. Times, Sept. 11, 2013
By Gary Gutting
George Yancy’s recent passionate response in The Stone to Trayvon Martin’s killing — and the equally passionate comments on his response — vividly present the seemingly intractable conflict such cases always evoke. There seems to be a sense in which each side is right, but no way to find common ground on which to move discussion forward. This is because, quite apart from the facts of the case, Trayvon Martin immediately became a symbol for two apparently opposing moral judgments. I will suggest, however, that both these judgments derive from the same underlying injustice — one at the heart of the historic March on Washington 50 years ago and highlighted in the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech on that occasion.
Trayvon Martin was, for the black community, a symbol of every young black male, each with vivid memories of averted faces, abrupt street crossings, clicking car locks and insulting police searches. As we move up the socioeconomic scale, the memories extend to attractive job openings that suddenly disappear when a black man applies, to blacks interviewed just to prove that a company tried, and even to a president some still hate for his color. It’s understandable that Trayvon Martin serves as a concrete emblem of the utterly unacceptable abuse, even today, of young black men.
But for others this young black man became a symbol of other disturbing realities; that, for example, those most likely to drop out of school, belong to gangs and commit violent crimes are those who “look like” Trayvon Martin. For them — however mistakenly — his case evokes the disturbing amount of antisocial behavior among young black males.
Trayvon Martin’s killing focused our national discussion because Americans made him a concrete model of opposing moral judgments about the plight of young black men. Is it because of their own lack of values and self-discipline, or to the vicious prejudice against them? Given either of these judgments, many conclude that we need more laws — against discrimination if you are in one camp, and against violent crime if you are in the other — and stronger penalties to solve our racial problems.
There may be some sense to more legislation, but after many years of both “getting tough on crime” and passing civil rights acts, we may be scraping the bottom of the legal barrel. In any case, underlying the partial truths of the two moral pictures, there is a deeper issue. We need to recognize that our continuing problems about race are essentially rooted in a fundamental injustice of our economic system.
This is a point that Martin Luther King Jr. made in his “I Have a Dream” speech, one rightly emphasized by a number of commentators on the anniversary of that speech, including President Obama and Joseph Stiglitz. Dr. King made the point in a striking image at the beginning of his speech. “The Negro is not free,” he said, because he “lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast sea of material prosperity.” In 2011, for 28 percent of African-Americans, the island was still there, the source of both images of Trayvon Martin.
People should be allowed to pursue their happiness in the competitive market. But it makes no sense to require people to compete in the market for basic goods. Those who lack such goods have little chance of winning them in competition with those who already have them. This is what leads to an underclass exhibiting the antisocial behavior condemned by one picture of young black men and the object of the prejudice condemned by the other picture.
We need to move from outrage over the existence of an underclass to serious policy discussions about economic justice, with the first issue being whether our current capitalist system is inevitably unjust. If it is, is there a feasible way of reforming or even replacing it? If it is not, what methods does it offer for eliminating the injustice?
It is easy — and true — to say that a society as wealthy as ours should be able to keep people from being unhappy because they do not have enough to eat, have no safe place to live, have no access to good education and medical care, or cannot find a job. But this doesn’t tell us how — if at all — to do what needs to be done. My point here is just that saying it can’t be done expresses not realism but despair. Unless we work for this fundamental justice, then we must reconcile ourselves to a society with a permanent underclass, a class that, given our history, will almost surely be racially defined. Then the bitter conflict between the two pictures of this class will never end, because the injustice that creates it will last forever. Dr. King’s island will never disappear, and there will always be another Trayvon Martin.
Gary Gutting is a professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame and an editor of Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews. He is the author of, most recently, “Thinking the Impossible: French Philosophy Since 1960,” and writes regularly for The Stone. He was recently interviewed in 3am magazine.