THE BLOG
12/05/2014 08:47 am ET Updated Feb 04, 2015

Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Justice

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The decision by grand juries in Ferguson, Missouri, and Staten Island, New York, not to indict white police officers whose use of force resulted in the deaths of two black men has led many to take their demand for justice into the streets.

There has been no end of media commentary on how grand juries work, what they heard, and what standard had to be met to indict the police officers. Some have argued that the grand jury process was faulty. Some have argued that, given the bar that must be met to indict, the decisions were correct even if they angered many.

There are dramatically different views of the work of these grand juries in white versus black communities. Polling data on the Ferguson grand jury process show that 58 percent of whites agree with its decision compared to only 9 percent of blacks. In short, the majority of whites seem content that justice was done; most blacks will never be content.

This disparity in racial views comes in part from differences in the perception of justice in America. An outcome is accepted as just by most (by no means all) whites when judicial procedures are followed. For most blacks, judicial procedures have been historically suspect and cannot be counted upon to produce a just outcome.

These two cases have also sparked a wider conversation about justice in terms of police procedure, law enforcement weapons, and officer training, and whether the grand jury process is broken. These wider conversations are important and necessary. They touch on other aspects of procedural justice.

But procedural justice is not enough. Earlier this year, the Justice Department announced that it would review the cases of people sentenced 10 or more years ago for drug crimes, with a view toward making it possible for some convicts to get clemency. These convicts received procedural justice at the time they were tried and sentenced, but the sense a decade later is that justice has not been served, principally because punishments today are much less severe for the same crimes. Deputy Attorney General James Cole put it this way when the program was announced: "For our criminal justice system to be effective, it needs not only to be fair, but it also must be perceived as fair."

Those who have taken to the streets see a great unfairness. Their perception is only in part their sense of procedural injustice. Even if procedural justice is improved -- better policing, better grand juries -- concerns about justice will not go away. Unfairness, in their view, permeates black-white relationships, not only in law enforcement and criminal justice but in areas as diverse as education, housing, employment, and health care. Black-white relationships, black opportunities, and black outcomes in America have been unfair since the first slaves were introduced here 400 years ago. The gains of the civil rights movement made substantial progress in wiping away legal barriers to justice, but societal barriers of many kinds persist.

"Justice is the end of government," James Madison said in Federalist #51. "It is the end of civil society. It ever has been and ever will be pursued until it is obtained, or until liberty be lost in the pursuit." That is the struggle that goes on today in police offices, courtrooms, schools, neighborhoods, businesses, and in the streets of America.

The danger, in the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, is that we will define the problem too narrowly. We will convene panels and commissions to fix the law enforcement and legal system but ignore the broader demands of justice. If we make that mistake, the loss of these two men will fade from memory and many of the potential gains to society from these tragedies will be missed. We owe them more than that. We owe ourselves more than that too.