The philosophical/ethical argument of the “seamless garment” holds that there must be a consistency in the application of moral principles that value the worth of all human life. Made popular in the 1970’s by Roman Catholic theologians, this theory maintains that issues such as abortion, capital punishment, militarism, euthanasia, social injustice, and economic injustice all demand a constant and balanced praxis if we are to remain true to our valuing of all life from conception to death. In essence, the seamless garment theory states that “you can't protect some life and not others."
In an all too familiar way, the Trayvon Martin tragedy reminds us just how deeply the scars of racism impact our everyday lives. On the surface, if we simply describe the scenario of a teenager walking home in the evening with the hood of his sweatshirt covering his head, nothing out of the ordinary seems to call out for any special attention. However, if we contextualize the specifics: a young, urban African-American male, walking alone with a hoodie concealing his face, a myriad of preconceived notions start to flood our “reality”. Our xenophobic impulses kick in and we are suddenly face to face with our fear of “the other”. President Obama even alluded to this knee jerk reaction when he spoke of his grandmother’s fears of passing a black man on the street: “…if she sees somebody on the street that she doesn't know...there's a reaction that's been bred into our experiences that doesn't go away and that sometimes comes out in the wrong way, and that's just the nature of race in our society.”. And that debilitating, depressing and, often, denigrating reaction to race in our society is the epitome of the disjointed, distorted, and disturbing response we witness with issues around class, poverty, gender, age, sexual orientation, political affiliation, and religion that we see played out every day.
Trayvon Martin, even in death, has challenged us to re-evaluate our sense of equity, our sense of power and privilege. Through a horrible tragedy, we are given the opportunity to assess once again our capacity to empathize, to embrace differences, and to defend those who are not sharing in equal rights. We are offered the opportunity to profess, as we have been taught by our Native American kin to “never judge another person until we have walked a mile in their moccasins”. And the hoodie has become symbolic of every form of unfair treatment to all different groups.
As Director of Education at The National School Climate Center, I am privileged to collaborate with school communities on the essential issues of how to structure our academic institutions to best serve the needs of those who will be our “change agents” both now and in the future. I am fortunate to listen and learn and partner with students, teachers, parents, and community members to ensure that all our youth have the tools and skills to become democratically informed, successful, and civically engaged citizens. We concentrate on questions like: How does our school deal with conflict? How do we deal with bullying and unfair treatment of others? How do we celebrate our differences? How do we practice restorative methods of discipline that educate instead of castigate? How do we embrace different learning styles and different contextual realities? Most of this boils down to educating ourselves to accept that: “we are in this together”. The African concept of Ubuntu perfectly captures what we need to embrace as our essential task. When I can accept that "I am what I am because of who we all are", then we can start to create a societal fabric that is truly a seamless garment. Far from simply adapting slogans, pep talks, canned/cookie-cutter or other “cockeyed optimist” approaches, this work is sometimes gritty, sometimes difficult, sometimes uncomfortable but always enriching (especially for me!). And, I am rapidly learning that it is essential if we are to avoid future tragedies such as Trayvon Martin.
The hoodie that purportedly targeted Trayvon for suspicion and derision is a powerful symbol for all of us. It is that object that “set him apart”, that made him “the other”. So the query posited in solidarity marches throughout the nation: “Do I look suspicious?” is rightfully and aptly asked by young African-American males. As study after study proves, they are wrongfully profiled, wrongfully searched, wrongfully singled out for discrimination, and wrongfully judged, and their treatment hurts us all. When President Obama stated that, “…if I had a son, he would look like Trayvon”, I’d like to believe that his larger meaning was much broader than race and included the concept of Ubuntu. That is, when an injustice was done in this situation, all of us were harmed and, therefore, all of us are called to respond. In a tremendous show of solidarity, this refutation of “the other” is also proclaimed by Muslim women who in their Million Hijab March assert that: “hoodie or hijab, racism is racism”. So, the challenge given to us by young African-American males (and young Islam females), then, is for us to broaden our vision, open our eyes, embrace the diversity in our midst and realize that we are all diminished when any of us is humiliated or diminished, when any of us is tortured, violated or oppressed. Trayvon’s hoodie, now more than ever, needs to become our “seamless garment”, energetically and vociferously refuting the societal message that some lives are worth “less than” others and, instead, teaching our youth the inherent value in all of us.