"I do not pretend to understand the moral universe, the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways. But from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice." --Theodore Parker, abolitionist
Debate amongst individuals and those in the media about the necessity and adequacy of the recently reported $40 million proposed settlement of the wrongful conviction lawsuit brought by the men known as the Central Park Five may go on for quite some time. Many people -- me included -- wax philosophically about the impossibility of returning the lost time and lost youth to the black and Latino men who were between the ages of 14 and 16 years when they were falsely arrested for the April 1989 rape of the white, female jogger in Central Park. Notable in the press reports is the fact that the settlement of approximately $1 million per year for each year served by Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana and Korey Wise, is historic in proportion, among the highest ever arrived at in a wrongful conviction case. All this is our conscience engaging us, encouraging us to check and measure whether or not New York City got it this right this time. Rev. Theodore Parker, quoted in the epigraph above, would likely describe this urge as an ideal that people have -- the desire to achieve justice.
For many, the proposed settlement reflects justice. If that's so, it would mean that in the instance of the Central Park Five, the arc of the moral universe had run its course and had indeed bent toward justice. For all my joy and relief that the settlement is basically a fait accompli, I am wrestling with some other thoughts and feelings. I am tremendously happy for the exonerated men and their families. But, the circumstances of their lives -- their racial categories and lack of wealth -- and police and prosecutorial practices that made them easy prey 25 years ago still make a tremendous difference in life outcomes today. Those things do make me wonder about the workings of our moral universe. Many poor, black and Latino juveniles still feel the impact of the super-predators laws that spread across the nation in the wake of the jogger case. The equating of blacks/Latino youth and criminality spawned a mentality within our policing agencies that feeds the system of mass incarceration. So, for me, in this case, the arc of the moral universe encompasses more than the men involved; and thus it is longer even than the 25 years it took for the exonerate men to get this measure of reparation or justice.
Does the settlement provide a just resolution for all the immoral and possibly illegal acts that led to the false arrest and wrongful conviction of the Central Park Five and buttressed a more oppressive juvenile "justice" system? Likely not! The federal district court judge overseeing the 11-year-long lawsuit dismissed a number of claims, including one of racial discrimination. It would have been impossible for the Central Park Five to prove racial discrimination under the existing rules for achieving racial justice in the courts. People's ideas of justice exist in their conscience and are driven by their own sense of morality. Oftentimes it is their belief in God/religion that builds the moral faculties they apply in everyday life. For example, the vast majority of people do not support racism. But, too often we forget that in addition to our individual sense of morality, there is another type of morality at play. It is the civic type; it lives in our institutions -- police, courts, legislative bodies -- where we put our conscience to work and to make our ideas of justice real. Simply because we do not support racism does not mean we don't support laws and practices that have a deleterious effect on justice in this country, particularly regarding juveniles of color as this case showed.
In 1989 the NYPD and the Manhattan District Attorney's office, city and state agencies that we trust to enact our civic morality, construed that they could present the concocted story of black and Latino teens "wilding" in Central Park as a way to explain the punishment that should be meted out in order to get justice for the white woman who was sexually assaulted. Instead of justice for Tricia Meili, they further disfigured our political system by helping to give new life to old cultural narratives about the black male propensity to rape white women and helping to build new cultural tales about young black and Latino males' particular affinity to crime. To have the good society we claim we want, we have to work assiduously against the laws and the practices that disproportionately disadvantage large groups of people. We need a civic morality sensitive to the ways in which laws and practices can be unfair to groups of people, even when race, class or gender terms are not used in the process of the oppression. One thing is clear; the Central Park Five case provides us with a contemporary rallying point that can help bend the arc of the moral universe toward justice. For one aspect of the case, the work is not complete. We must reform the juvenile justice system and dismantle our system of mass incarceration.