07/18/2013 06:25 am ET Updated Sep 17, 2013

Justice and Trayvon Martin

After a three-week trial, a jury acquitted George Zimmerman on all charges resulting from his deadly confrontation with 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. The blogosphere and the streets in several cities erupted with cries of injustice and demands that the federal government try Zimmerman for a hate crime. President Obama, in an effort to cool the situation, reminded us that we are a nation of laws.

Americans of a more reflective bent, and I like to consider myself one of them, held back from the emotions of the moment and concluded that justice was served since both sides had their day in court in what seemed like a well-argued case with an impartial judge. And so I went on to other news, self-confidently wondering why so many were protesting and unwilling to let the matter drop.

It was only yesterday that I realized: the courtroom is just one way of achieving the pledge to "establish Justice" in the Constitution's Preamble. What Zimmerman -- and I would argue Martin -- got in the Florida trial was procedural justice. The case was tried using well-developed and widely respected rules to insure that the rights of the accused are protected and that the death of the victim is avenged if the jury finds the facts convincing.

But legal procedure is not and should not be the only way a society strives for justice. Some of those angry at the outcome of the trial think that Martin may have had his day in court but that something is still unfair in what has taken place. Beyond procedural justice, there is also justice as fairness. We are wired for fairness, psychologists have concluded from studies involving the brain. When something is unfair, we get mad. If you don't agree, just recall that one of the earliest cries from toddlers is that "it's not fair," and that cry comes long before they have the capacity for moral reasoning.

The philosopher John Rawls argued for a conception of justice as fairness when he asked us to think about whether we would accept society's rules and institutions if we were behind a "veil of ignorance." That is, if you knew you would be put into our society from another planet and had to obey our rules and live under our institutions, but if you had no idea exactly where you would be dropped, would you say, "OK, drop me in"? That is, if you did not know what sex, race, or religion you would have, what your age would be, where you would live or what kind of job you would have or could get, would you be comfortable with the way society's rules and institutions are set up and what might happen to you? Would you think society is fair enough to take that plunge?

If the answer is "no," then you are uncomfortable with the level of fairness in society. Now Trayvon Martin came for a loving family and seemed to have some advantages, but consider the challenges that await many young black men who lack an economic, social, and family support system:

• In America, the infant mortality rate for non-Hispanic black women is twice the rate for non-hispanic white women.
• The unemployment rate for black men aged 16-19 is nearly twice that of the rate for whites (43.0 vs. 24.6 percent).
• For young black men, one in ten will be in prison on any given day. Sixty percent of the prison population is composed of ethnic minorities.
• The gun homicide rate for blacks is eleven times the rate for whites, and the rate of victimization in all violent crimes is 22 percent higher for blacks than whites.

This is not justice as fairness. There is something wrong with a society when being young, black and poor stacks the odds against you from the moment you are born. And this is the source, I believe, of the anger felt by many protesting the Zimmerman verdict. While Trayvon Martin did not face all these daunting odds, for the protesters, he is still everyman -- or at least every young black man.

The experience of young black men -- even those born into relatively good circumstances -- in a white society is often not pretty. It is too often dangerous. We may comfort ourselves and say that is their choices, not the outside world, that consigns them to poverty, crime, and physical violence. But think about what choices you would have if you were born in an inner city, to a teenage, single mother who had no job. Think about what choices you would have if the school you went to was substandard, if you could not get a decent education or job, and if the only people you saw around you with money were dealing drugs -- and you were badgered if not threatened every day to either join that life or face the consequences.

Perhaps those angry at the Zimmerman verdict are angry at the lack of the chance for a decent life for many young black men. They are looking beyond Trayvon, though he is a convenient spotlight for what happens in society when social justice has not nearly risen to the level of equality as has procedural justice.

We take just pride in the elimination of many forms of racial segregation and the rise of a black middle class as we celebrate the achievements in civil rights this fiftieth year after Martin Luther King, Jr. proclaimed that "I have a dream." But we should grant ourselves no pride in the fact that we still have a society that consigns many young people to lives which have little hope.