Recently, folks at my church had a chance to hear a recording from Bryan Stevenson. He is a lawyer who is the founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative. The organization has challenged bias against the poor and minorities in the criminal justice system.
He spoke at a medical conference in 2019 with a message of hope. In his address, American Injustice: Mercy, Humanity, and Making a Difference, he briefly discussed his concerns. There is too much unfairness in a system where over two million people are incarcerated, compared with about 300,000 a half century ago. This leads to a sense of hopelessness, especially in many black and Latinx communities.
Yet Stevenson put forth four principles of positivity:
There is power in being proximate
We need to commit ourselves to get proximate to those in need. There is a tendency to avoid those “bad parts of town.” He submits that we need to get closer to the communities of the marginalized.
He spoke of his beloved grandmother. She was a daughter of people who were enslaved. She would hug him so tightly that he thought she would hurt him. But she’d ask when she’d see him again, “Do you still feel me hugging you?”
He tells a story, which is shown in the Just Mercy movie how he, as a mere law intern, gave hope to a death row inmate. The law firm dispatched Bryan to tell the prisoner that he was not at risk of being executed in the next year. The grateful prisoner could then invite huis family to visit him.
There is power in being proximate.
Change the narrative
The misguided war on drugs should have been dealt with as a health problem, not a legal issue. Too often government traffics in the politics of fear and anger. This allows people to accept things we should not accept. This leads to mandatory sentencing, children treated as adults. Who’s responsible for this? WE are.
Stevenson believes the true evil of slavery is not the enforced incarceration or even dreadful conditions of servitude. The true evil was/is the narrative of slavery. Racial differences were made up to create an ideology of a people who are not aren’t fully human. This is the basis of white supremacy.
He contends, and I would agree, that slavery of did not end in 1865. It morphed into Jim Crow and ,mass incarceration. Some friend of a friend suggested that we’ve been living with terrorism since 9/11. au contraire: many black people grew up with terrorism. The refugees of racial terror in the South ended up in the refugee camps that are the ghettos of the mostly northern cities.
Black people often live with the presumptuousness of dangerousness and guilt. And IT IS EXHAUSTING. (Amen.) Stevenson told of being in a Midwest courtroom, well-dressed and middle-aged. The judge chastised him for being there, assuming he was a prisoner. When the judge was corrected, he laughed. The district attorney laughed. Bryan forced himself to laugh, so as not to disadvantage his client, who was on that day, a young white man.
Stevenson believes – and he is SO right – that there is too much of a simplistic celebratory narrative about the “civil rights era.” Day 1, Rosa Park refused to stand on the bus. Day 2, Martin Luther King Jr. gave a rousing speech. Day 3, racism was over. Ha!
But he has no interest in punishment. He wants liberation. He wants a process of truth and justice, truth and reconciliation. There is no justice, no reconciliation without truth. You see that in Rwanda, in South Africa, in Germany. There are no Hitler statues in Berlin.
Hopelessness is the enemy of justice. Hope is our superpower. It takes bravery be hopeful.
Do the things that are uncomfortable and inconvenient
We must do those actions that are witness to inequality. The vaunted Civil Rights era is filled with those examples, and those opportunities exist regularly today.
People are more than the worst thing they’ve done. The opposite of poverty is justice.