Moving Beyond Trayvon Martin to Issues of Economic (In)Justice

Professor Gary Gutting has written one of the most thoughtful, far-reaching analyses of the Trayvon Martin case that I’ve seen.

On the one hand, he says, blacks responded to Trayvon as a symbol of the groundless, racist suspicions familiar to black males, e.g., whites crossing streets to avoid them, stop-and-frisks, the car door locks clicking that President Obama mentioned.

So, I should add, did some non-blacks.

But for others, Gutting says, Trayvon symbolized “disturbing realities” about all too many young black men, e.g., that they’re likely to drop out of school, commit violent crimes and engage in other anti-social behaviors.

So we’ve got two opposing moral judgments, but neither reaches the “deeper issue” — the fact of “a fundamental injustice in our economic system.”

Dr. Martin Luther King opened his famous March on Washington speech by proclaiming that “the Negro is still not free…. [He] lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast sea of material prosperity.”

This is still true 50 years later for 28% of blacks, Gutting says, citing last year’s official poverty figure. And the root cause is the way our free enterprise system works.

It’s geared primarily toward enabling individuals to amass personal wealth. And them’s what has gets, at the expense of them’s what don’t.

The end result is “a socioeconomic underclass deprived of the basic goods necessary for a fulfilling human life: adequate food, housing, health care and education, as well as meaningful and secure employment.”

Gutting asserts that “people should be free to pursue their happiness in the competitive market” — an odd conflation of happiness and riches.

But, he continues, “it makes no sense to require people to compete in the market for basic goods” because if they don’t have them, they’ve “little chance of gaining them in competition” with those that do.

We’ve got scads of evidence for this. For example, we’ve got research showing that more than 40% of children raised in the bottom fifth of the income scale stay there as adults — and more than half if they’re black.

And other studies showing that children of wealthy parents start kindergarten ahead of the pack — and stay there, while a very large number of poor children start with disadvantages that cause them to fall further and further behind.

And data showing that even the poor kids who make it through high school are far less likely to go on to college — and less likely to graduate if they do. Costs and other financial pressures are, for blacks, the single most important reason, according to yet other research. And probably not for them only.

These differences carry over into competition in the labor market, of course.

Last month, only 3.5% of workers with a bachelors degree or higher were jobless and actively looking, as compared to 7.6% with a high school diploma or the equivalent and 11.3% with less.

The wage premium of a college degree is similarly marked — and due partly to the fact that more highly educated people are far more likely to be working, as Catherine Rampall at The New York Times notes.

Last year, the median earnings of men with a bachelors degree were nearly twice those of men with a high school degree or the equivalent — and more than two and two-thirds times those of men with less.

Even more marked disparities for women. The median for those without a high school diploma or the equivalent was a mere $14,867 — well under the federal poverty line for a two-person family.

And so income inequality replicates itself from generation to generation, with the rich getting richer and the poor, if not actually poorer, at least increasingly disadvantaged.

Gutting says that “[w]e need to move from outrage … to serious policy discussions about economic justice, with the first issue being whether our capitalist system is inevitably unjust.”

If it is, can we feasibly reform or even replace it? If it isn’t, what methods does it offer for rectifying the injustice represented by the continuing existence of an “underclass” — one that “given our history, will almost surely be racially defined?”

These are good questions — and the kind a philosophy professor can pose.

I’ve got a hard time imagining our policymakers and those who seek to influence them sitting down to discuss whether we should overhaul our basic economic system.

But we surely should have some productive discussion about leveling the playing field.

The recent Census report tells us that the top fifth of households got more than half of all income, while the bottom fifth got 3.2%. But this may actually understate income inequality because the Bureau doesn’t count capital gains.

A new analysis by economists Emmanuel Saez and Thomas Piketty estimates that the top 1% captured 95% of the income gains during the first three years of what’s supposedly our recovery. The share of income that flowed to the top tenth of that percent last year is the highest on a record dating back to 1917.

We don’t have to favor a post-capitalist system to know that there’s something wrong when the wealthiest families — the top 0.1% — had incomes over $10.2 million, while 46.5 million people lived in poverty.


2 Responses to Moving Beyond Trayvon Martin to Issues of Economic (In)Justice

  1. MICHAEL SLONE says:

    There are no perfect economic/political systems; corruption abounds and corrupt people have always found a way to exploit any system for personal gain to the detriment of others.

    I don’t think capitalism is inherently evil, but it has in America become over time an enabler for “the love of money” which gives rise to much evil. The other weekend “we” spent over $1B to purchase a video game! The government didn’t have anything to do with that, just the lusts of mankind.

    There are systemic issues with the current form of capitalism that can be addressed without a wholesale change of economics. We need to reward humanitarian generosity while avoiding “caustic charity”.

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