A Better Justice

I have an uncomfortable confession to make.

When the trial for Trayvon Martin’s killer was going on I remember being so convinced that justice would be done. It had to be; after all, Zimmerman had been arrested and was facing charges. The system would run its course and there would be justice delivered by the end of it. When he was not convicted of the charges, I believed (naively) that justice had been served. I wanted to believe the process contained some moral authority that led to its outcome, even if it felt wrong to me; that adjudication itself was the equivalent of fairness. I didn’t understand why people were so angry at the outcome then.

Let me rephrase that: I didn’t understand…period.

We’ve seen so many white supremacist mass murderers apprehended with barely so much as a scratch (and sometimes treated to a meal after the fact) when they have slain countless people, usually from minority groups. We have also seen black people shot for everything from selling cigarettes, to helping patients with autism, to just being scared kids. Most recently we’ve seen it in East Pittsburgh: a scared kid who was denied the privilege of an arrest, which law enforcement is capable of delivering to heavily armed terrorist attackers, but who instead had his life adjudicated by three bullets in his back. His crime in that moment was a human reaction: flight. Our American culture files all of this under the same name: justice.

But there is a better justice to be had. And we all desperately need it.

At the AWP Conference in Portland this week, I attended a very thought-provoking panel that included a friend of mine from the University of Pittsburgh. The topic was specific (the idea of “craft” and Black writing) but the conversation was sprawling. My friend delivered a not-unfamiliar perspective in the middle of this conversation, and yet in the wake of the not guilty verdict in the Antwon Rose case, it hit me deeply. She said, in essence, “We are all agents of white supremacy; it has infected us all.” In a room of mostly Black people, who had been affirming and echoing the many salient points made by the panelists, there was a very heavy and knowing quiet in the wake of this comment.

In class I’ve been discussing the similar but not synonymous concepts of law and justice with my language arts students, as we’ve begun reading “Monster” by Walter Dean Myers. I’ve finished reading “The Color of Law” by Richard Rothstein, which thoroughly demonstrates how housing segregation was deliberately enforced not only by private citizens, but by government as well, and the tremendous consequences thereof. I’ve been (slowly) reading “The History of White People” by Nell Irvin Painter, which lays bare the extraordinary historical lengths through which power has been codified and commodified into “whiteness.” I’ve been present for conversations, digital and face-to-face, in which time and time again the blatantly, badly laid blocks of American social and legal culture have been shown to be inadequate. It’s all left me stirring around one thought.

Justice is a tradition. It’s a culture. It’s a mindset. It is, by nature, temporal and therefore malleable. It is incumbent on our generations living now to recognize this fact and face a certain truth—the truth that the justice executed in America (not to mention that which it executes throughout the entire world) is the accumulated justice of generations of people in power before us. It is the justice not only of hallowed names in history books, but of racists, white supremacists, and disinterested, unsympathetic bystanders. These people are, more often than not, one in the same. Why then, other than the tired trope of tradition, are we beholden to this worn out justice?

If we believe, as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, that there is a moral universe arcing somewhere, we must also know that it does not touch this planet, but only passes by. It is up to us to look up, and to bend our world to match it. The moral universe does not bend us, for us; we must be malleable and apply the force ourselves.

It has been a long process of identifying and seeking to cure the infection of white supremacy in myself that clouded my judgement in the Trayvon Martin case. It isn’t all quite gone, and as my friend’s point illustrates, it most likely never will be. Not in my lifetime, perhaps. But it is this work of curing, of bending, that is so necessary in our time. Yet we see this work impugned by those so drunk on traditional notions of justice, so comfortable in its familiar, supportive embrace, that feels like “social justice” is a dirty word at times.

The truth is, we all believe in social justice. That is to say, we all believe in having a society that is just toward us and those we love. Some of us already benefit from a system that is socially just toward the empowered, decedents of the shapers of our peculiar forms of justice. Too many of us do not—there is no justice in shooting an unarmed child in the back as he runs away.

There is, however a law. As I told my students, the only thing that gives laws any power is the fact that people agreed to write it down one day and to imbue it with power. Even 7th graders can see through this; they can see the potential for erasure, revision, and improvement of the bad writing, the need to align our words with our higher aspirations as a species. The real work is to realize and create a world in which we desire that same social justice that so many benefit from for the communities that aren’t ours and that intersect with ours. This is the only way to a better justice.

This all leads me back to something Claudia Rankine spoke about when she visited Pittsburgh with Carrie Mae Weems recently. Rankine recounted being asked by a white man during a Q&A session, “What can I do (as a white man) to help you?” Her response was something to the effect of, “The question you need to ask is how can you help yourself?” Taking this alongside my friend’s point about white supremacy as an infection we are all susceptible to, I realize that while Rankine’s response was pointedly toward this man, its wisdom applies to me as well—the me of 2019 as well as the naive me of the Trayvon trial. It applied to a great many of us. Put another way, the question left to all of is: How are you changing yourself so that a better justice might be bent into this world?

Cameron BarnettComment