Humane: Do Some Good
"That's Not Fair!"
What is justice? It is “the quality of being fair and reasonable” as defined by the dictionary.
Humans have an innate sense of fairness. Small children voice this need routinely, often times in loud shrieks piercing the playground, “That’s not fair!” And the usual response from a nearby adult is, “Hey kid, hasn’t anybody told you that life’s not fair?”
And that’s how it starts. The definition of justice loses all substance. What’s fair for you is not fair for me and since we can’t agree let’s just drop it “for the sake of peace”. But there is no peace when unresolved conflict simmers beneath the crust of our character, slowly heating like a volcano destined to erupt.
Unlike children, adults are afraid of confrontation, afraid to “call someone out” when faced with an act of incivility. However, there are some adults among us who have held on to the courage of their childhood and have no fear of conflict. Bryan Stevenson is one such man.
He is the Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama, which he founded in 1989. He is a graduate of the Harvard Law School and the Harvard School of Government, has been awarded sixteen honorary doctorate degrees, and is a Professor of Law at New York University School of Law. Beyond his paper credentials, Bryan’s character credentials are written on his heart, carved from an upbringing that taught him to favor redemption over revenge.
In line with such long-held beliefs, Bryan Stevenson has pursued a life of upholding justice, especially for those who are defenseless. The following is an excerpt from an interview with the Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization that focuses on the American criminal justice system. Corey Johnson, a senior staff writer, asks questions that prompt Bryan to give compelling answers regarding his passion for justice. What he has to say also reflects his clear view on the problem of race relations in America. His thoughts are a great gift of wisdom that will benefit the reader, perhaps from a personal perspective, and will deliver a universal application.
The conversation takes place shortly after the nine parishioners were slain at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina this past June. However, the content of this interview stands timeless in view of the ongoing narrative of racial strife in our country that we hear of on a daily basis, especially the latest stream of stories about the deplorable condition of our prison system, which induced both President Obama and Pope Francis to arrange high-profile visits to a federal prison and city jail.
Here is an excerpt of that interview:
CJ: Help me understand how the narrative, as you say, could have influenced this young white man who was born long after the events you describe. This kid is just 21 years old.
When did the narrative of racial difference end? What date did people fully embrace and accept, internalize, act on, believe that there is no difference between races? When did that happen? It did not happen when the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964 because every state in the South has been fighting it until the present day. It did not happen in the 1970s when people were violently resisting the idea of integration in schools. It did not happen in the 1980s when some people were suggesting that there ought to be affirmative action for people who have been denied historic opportunities. It did not happen in the 1990s when we saw police violence being directed at blacks like Rodney King, and saw the rate of attacks on young men of color increase and we constructed this whole apparatus of mass incarceration that has targeted and menaced black and brown people in ways that are epidemic. It didn’t happen at the beginning of this 21st century when for the first time, one in three black males born in this country were destined for jail or prison because we think that your race makes you presumptively dangerous and guilty. So what date did it happen?
This young man was born into the same country that has failed to deal with this narrative of racial difference, has failed to overcome a lie of racial difference and white supremacy that his foreparents were born into in the 19th and 20th centuries. The only difference is that we’ve had these little pockets of black achievement and success and people have learned to stop using the n-word in many situations, and we call that progress. The question I ask is not how could this young man be affected by these historic failures, by this ideology, the question is how could he not? We're all affected by it. I'm a 55 year old lawyer, went to Harvard Law School, all these degrees, had some success. I was sitting in a courtroom a couple of years ago in a suit and tie in the Midwest waiting for a hearing to start and the judge came out and said, “Hey, hey, hey, hey, you go back out there in the hallway and you wait until your defense lawyer gets here because I don’t want any defendants sitting in my courtroom without their lawyer.” And I stood and I said, “I'm sorry, Your Honor, my name is Bryan Stevenson, I am the attorney.” The judge started laughing, the prosecutor laughed, I made myself laugh because I didn’t want to disadvantage my client. My client comes in — a young white kid I was representing — and we had the hearing. Afterwards, I thought about it and I thought, what is it that when this judge sees a black man — middle aged black man — in a suit and tie in his courtroom at defense counsel’s table, it doesn’t occur to him that that’s the lawyer. What that is is this narrative of racial difference, this ideology that has burdened black people in this country since the first days we stepped ashore on this continent. And it's supported and enforced in lots of ways. So that young man in South Carolina sees the same Confederate flags that civil rights activists had to confront in the ‘50s when they were trying to ask for integration, he hears the same kinds of stories about black men raping white women and their criminal and carnal character and nature, that were spreading throughout the region in the early part of the 20th century, resulting in lynching and terror. It is the same ideology that was created during slavery. And no one should be shocked that those ideas are in his head when they are reinforced in countless ways day in and day out in our everyday living, including in the ways that the positions of power and influence are still largely owned and occupied disproportionately by people who are white.
[...] So yes, the Confederate flag should come down but more than that, we need to engage with this in a very different way. You can’t go to Germany, to Berlin, and walk 100 meters without seeing a marker or a stone or a monument to mark the places where Jewish families were abducted from their homes and taken to the concentration camps. Germans want you to go to the concentration camps and reflect soberly on the legacy of the Holocaust. We do the opposite here. We don’t want anybody talking about slavery, we don’t want anybody talking about lynching, we don’t want anybody talking about segregation. You say the word “race” and people immediately get nervous. You say the words “racial justice” and they're looking for the exits. If we're going to change the attitudes of the judges who are making sentencing decisions, and police officers who are unfairly suspecting young men of color, and employers and educators who are suspending and expelling kids of color at disproportionately high rates, if we're going to make a difference in overcoming the implicit bias that we all have, we're going to have to deal honestly with this history and have to consciously work on freeing ourselves from this history.
[...] So the narrative of racial difference in this country is so insidious that electing an African American president means that that president has to speak less about the challenges of African American people than someone white. There’s such profound suspicion and deep resentment that maybe he's going to be a president for the black people that he's constantly having to bend over backwards to make it clear that he's not prioritizing the needs of African Americans. So I've been fascinated by how extreme and irrational and emotional the responses have been anytime he touches on race. I think some of the contempt and the really out of bounds rhetoric that we’ve seen directed at the president can’t be disconnected from this history. Billboards across the state of Alabama: “put the white back in White House,” “Anti-racist equals anti-white,” all these are reactions to this perceived decrease in power and status for white people directly related to President Obama’s election. So rather than helping people move forward, in many ways it has intensified this need to protect this longstanding narrative. The efforts of the president may have been thwarted and frustrated in ways that cannot be disconnected from his own identity.
What more is there to say about identity? Our national identity is comprised of our individual identities that cannot be torn apart from one another. The wisdom of our nation’s founding fathers stated that fact with eloquence when they placed these words on the Great Seal of the United States: E Pluribus Unum, “Out of many, one”.
You can read the entire interview with Bryan Stevenson here.
The Equal Justice Initiative, has a well-done website with loads of information, videos and stories that will broaden your knowledge and help you to find ways to pursue and find justice in your own life.