Essayist Richard Rodriguez Writes on Justice and Class

August 2, 2006 at 6:45 PM EDT

GWEN IFILL: Finally tonight, essayist Richard Rodriguez on justice and class.

RICHARD RODRIGUEZ, NewsHour Essayist: Ken Lay, the convicted head of Enron, died in early July before he could be formally sentenced to jail, but middle-class Americans had at least the satisfaction of seeing his fame reduced to a walk of shame.

Commonly, when the rich of Beverly Hills, or Greenwich, or River Oaks are indicted, the middle-class assumption is that the lawyers will get them off. Indeed, so ubiquitous have high-priced lawyers become, we can name many of them, recognize their silky voices and fine suits.

THE BARENAKED LADIES, Musicians (singing): If I had a million dollars…

RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: We of the middle class know that a lotto ticket is about the only chance we have for fabulous wealth. We see the very rich in magazines and on television, and we can only wonder at their Learjets and the palaces they’ve built to house their egos. The very rich have always been different from you and me, but as that difference has so vastly grown, so, too, has middle-class cynicism.

When they are indicted, we assume that their wealth will purchase them singularity. We tell ourselves, “The rich are not subject to the same kind of justice the rest of us know.” At most, the Hollywood celebrity or the CEO will get off with a sentence of community service…


ARRESTEE: Yes, good deal.

Middle class attitudes towards poor

RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: On the other hand, we have the middle-class tendency to cramp the poor in the plural. In a sympathetic light, we judge a teenager's offense to be the result of his neighborhood. When we are less than sympathetic, we tend to see the threat of the many behind the crime of the one.

Middle-class Americans, for example, speak in the plural about illegal immigrants; the individual faces and names of these migrants are of no interest to us. What frightens us and upsets us is the wave they represent, the many who keep coming.

So, yes, the kid who steals the pizza probably goes to prison for many more years than the corrupt CEO ever has to serve. In middle-class America, we know the plot line separating the very rich from the very poor. But what about us, we of the middle class?

Visit a maximum-security prison, and you will not meet many wealthy people behind bars, but you will not meet many middle-class Americans, either. And if we of the middle class see ourselves as more vulnerable to justice than the rich who can purchase their exception, we also assume an exception. We do not regard our own behavior as communally as we regard the behavior of the poor.

After all, when our neighbor is arrested, her crime does not implicate us the way the criminality of a poor person implicates an entire ghetto. Indeed on the freeway, when many middle-class Americans violate the speed limit, our inclination is to think the speed limit needs to be changed.

After Ken Lay died in Aspen, there was much humor on the middle-class chat forums. A joke about Elvis Presley was resurrected. Maybe, like Elvis, Ken Lay hadn't died at all but had merely moved to Memphis.

In the great tragedies of the Greeks and the Renaissance, the most powerful of the land, kings and queen, fell from some moral defect, and everyone, silent in the stalls and the pit, was odd and felt implicated by the fall. Not so in today's America: The mighty fall, just as the poor fall. The middle class remains unmoved by the drama.

The story of Ken Lay, the preacher's son who ended up the lord of Houston and then fell, his tale has nothing to do with us in the middle class. In the end, if we could not send him to jail, we had to be satisfied by the ritual of his disgrace. We've got to watch him walk the walk.

JOURNALIST: Mr. Lay, what would you say to the folks that used to work for your company?

RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: I am Richard Rodriguez.