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Embracing a More Courageous Identity
Embracing a More Courageous Identity

In his 2012 TED talk, Bryan Stevenson, public-interest lawyer, founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, and author of New York Times bestseller Just Mercy, draws attention to the implications of racial discrimination for the United States criminal justice system. “This country is very different today than it was forty years ago,” Stevenson states. “In 1972, there were 300,000 people in jails and prisons. Today, there are 2.3 million.” With the highest incarceration rate in the world, the United States has approximately seven million people on probation and parole. One out of three black males “can expect to go to prison in his lifetime,” twice as likely as a Latino male and six times more likely than a white male, according to a 2013 report by the Sentencing Project to the UN Human Rights Committee. In his TED talk, Stevenson notes that in the states of the Old South, the rate of receiving a death penalty sentence is 11 times higher “if the victim is white than if the victim is black,” and 22 times higher “if the defendant is black and the victim is white.”

Zeid bin Ra’ad Hussain, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, observes racism of all forms against men, women, and children of African descent across the globe. At the event launching the International Decade for People of African Descent on 3 November 2015, held by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA), he addresses the dire need to combat structural and institutional racism. Among other aspects, he emphasizes that black people––especially young men––experience “unequal treatment before the law,” including “alarming rates of sometimes lethal police action and are subject to racial profiling and bias in the criminal justice system.” Not only were they “frequently incarcerated,” but they are also “more likely to be subjected to harsh sentences, including the death penalty.”On top of racial discrimination is poverty: Stevenson has long stated that “we have a system of justice in this country that treats you much better if you’re rich and guilty than if you’re poor and innocent. Wealth, not culpability, shapes outcomes.” The repercussions of having a criminal conviction are grave: voter disenfranchisement is common in a number of states; in Alabama, “34 percent of the black male population has permanently lost the right to vote." Perhaps more striking is the high rate of “error” that characterizes the death penalty in America: “For every nine people who’ve been executed, we’ve actually identified one innocent person who’s been exonerated and released from death row.” “One out of nine people,” Stevenson stresses, “innocent.”

Bryan Stevenson delivered the 2017 Ware Lecture.

Bryan Stevenson gave the Ware Lecture during the 2017 UUA General Assembly in New Orleans, LA.

Such statistics on mass incarceration, however, represent only the tip of the racialized iceberg in the American criminal justice system. Speaking to the “stunning silence” nation-wide in the face of over-representation of black and poor people in confinement, Stevenson argues that the presumption of dangerousness and guilt boils down to a matter of poor knowledge about the history of American slavery and racial inequality. When Congress banned the Transatlantic Slave Trade in 1808 and rendered slavery less acceptable in the mid-Atlantic and the North, the domestic slave trade began to expand from the upper South to the Lower South. In Alabama alone, the enslaved population increased from less than 40,000 to more than 435,000 within five decades. To an even greater degree than other societies that had slaves, America operated on an economy heavily dependent upon slave labor, and continued to witness graphic racialized violence following emancipation. “I don’t think that the great evil of American slavery was ‘involuntary servitude’ or forced labor,” Stevenson states, referencing the Thirteenth Amendment. “I really believe that the true evil of American slavery was the narrative of racial difference that we created to justify it.” The Union’s victory in the Civil War marked a liberating moment in black history, but it did not end the ideology of white supremacy: Stevenson doesn't believe that slavery ended in 1865. "I think it only evolved. It turned into decades of terrorism and lynching and racial hierarchy.” For African Americans, the era from the end of Reconstruction to World War II was one defined by terror, only to be followed by decades of Jim Crow segregation and daily humiliation. To this day, the ideology of racial difference has been used to justify structural abuse against African Americans, including but not exclusive to the criminal justice system.

What the United States lacks, in Stevenson’s judgement, is a national commitment to a process of truth and reconciliation: “We’ve just failed as a nation to be honest with our history.” Unlike America, which has created a false narrative of equality while extreme racial inequality persists, sometimes even glorifying the exponents of slavery, several other countries with similar histories of gross human rights violations have undergone and continue to implement a nation-wide reckoning process. Stevenson sees museums as one manifestation of honest story-telling. In Johannesburg, South Africa, the Apartheid Museum challenges all visitors by assigning them tickets that state either white or color, and by requiring them to go through the door that their tickets permit. When Stevenson once went to the museum with three Scandinavian white human rights activists, they showed reluctance to go through the white door, and asked for different tickets from a black South African woman at the ticket office. But she responded, “No, it doesn’t work like that. You take that ticket and you go in the Apartheid Museum. Or, you go back to where you came from, and you can tell people you’re unwilling to confront the legacy of Apartheid!”

Picture of a brick wall on which is painted "You are standing on a site where enslaved people were warehoused."

Painted on the wall at the Equal Justice Initiative's Legacy Museum in Montgomery, AL is a notice that reads "You are standing on a site where enslaved people were warehoused."

South Africa is not alone in showing to the world how the country is “coming to terms with its oppressive past.” The Kigali Genocide Memorial in Rwanda also serves as an example of how a country has taken initiatives to inform people the origins, impacts, and legacy of genocide to ensure that it never happen again. In Germany, “you can’t go a hundred meters without markers and icons appearing that mark the spaces where Jewish families were abducted.” The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in central Berlin provides physical space to reflect upon one of the most heinous human crimes. Inspired also by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C., Stevenson and his team at the Equal Justice Initiative opened the Legacy Museum three months ago on April 26th, “on a site in Montgomery where enslaved people were once warehoused.” The museum stands nearby EJI’s new National Memorial for Peace and Justice (also known as the Lynching Memorial). He wishes that people in America take the courage to confront their weighty history of racial terrorism, and be “motivated to say, ‘Never again.’”

For the United States to talk bluntly and honestly about its history of racial inequality, the heart of the challenge is to shift fundamentally the lens through which it views its own identity. The country cannot afford to have a reductionist understanding of its past by sugar-coating injustice. Instead of portraying the mid-nineteenth century as a romantic episode, America needs to acknowledge the brutality of slavery and its aftermath for African Americans. “We have in this country this dynamic where we really don’t like to talk about our problems, we don’t like to talk about our history,” Stevenson pinpoints the chief problem. “And because of that, we really haven’t understood what it has meant to do the things we’ve done historically.” In its 2015 report on racial terror lynchings, the Equal Justice Initiative documented more than four thousand cases in twelve states from the end of Reconstruction to World War II. Not only were black people hanged, but their bodies were also dragged through the streets to terrorize the whole black community. When the mob invited the whole community to participate, “they sometimes served lemonade and devilled eggs as refreshments” during such spectacle violence. “Most critically,” however, the report accentuates that “lynching reinforced a legacy of racial inequality that has never been adequately addressed in America.” While most people in America are unaware of the violence following emancipation that was used systematically to reinforce racial hierarchy, older people of color in the South are filled with anguish. In response to news commentators talking about “dealing with domestic terrorism for the first time in the United States after the 9/11 attacks,” they would complain to Stevenson, “You make them stop saying that! We grew up with terrorism all the time" (Just Mercy, p. 299).

Photo of fireworks from an Independence Day celebration in New York City

Fireworks celebration on the 4th of July, in celebration of American Independence Day.

Stevenson is certainly not the first to emphasize the nation’s need to qualify such an uncritical and celebratory approach to viewing its own history. Prior to emancipation, African-American leaders were already discussing the dichotomy between the country’s promise and reality. On 5 July 1852, Frederick Douglass addressed a gathering of approximately five hundred white abolitionists in Rochester, New York: “The Fourth [of] July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must morn.” Particularly in response to the 1850 federal Fugitive Slave Act that had provided judges with financial incentive to send runaways––and sometimes free blacks––back to slavery, he refused to celebrate the Day of Independence until all slaves were emancipated. “Are the great principles of political freedom and natural justice,” he asked rhetorically, “embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us?” By referencing the founding document, Douglass tapped into American ideology of equality, and conveyed the irony of celebration. The American Revolution, he believed, was not yet complete with African Americans being victims of “gross injustice and cruelty.” When “prayers [were] made, hymns [were] sung, and sermons [were] preached” on the birthday of national independence, America was reduced to a place with nothing but jubilee, ignoring the suffering of millions. To the slave, the fourth of July was only an excruciating reminder of their own reduced dignity.

Both Stevenson’s and Douglass’s criticism of the United States’ effort to romanticize its history and identity originates from genuine patriotism. “I believe that our identity is at risk,” Stevenson expresses his concern, “that when we actually don’t care about these difficult things, the positive and wonderful things are nonetheless implicated.” In fact, African-American history is not the only history that the United States teaches poorly––the slaughter of millions of Native Americans is even more hidden in people’s consciousness. “We have to change the narrative; we are gonna have to talk about some things that we haven’t talked about before,” Stevenson argues. “It was a genocide, but we didn’t call it that, we said that those people were savages.” The same narrative of racial difference was used again to sustain white supremacy and mistreatment of African Americans before and following emancipation. A post-genocide society, America has not learned to deal with its history truthfully like nation-states of South Africa, Rwanda, and Germany. Stevenson gives the caveat that avoiding and distorting history has led to a lack of mercy toward historically disadvantaged communities, and encourages the country to be more brave and committed in embracing its dark past. “We are all implicated when we allow other people to be mistreated,” Stevenson advocates against apathy. “An absence of compassion can corrupt the decency of a community, a state, a nation. . . . The closer we get to mass incarceration and extreme levels of punishment, the more I believe that we all need mercy, we all need justice, and––perhaps––we all need some measure of unmerited grace" (Just Mercy, p. 18).

The main, more subtle point that Stevenson makes is that confronting the history of racial injustice would strengthen the character of the nation. “We love innovation, we love technology, we love creativity, we love entertainment,” he says, “but ultimately, those realities are shadowed by suffering, abuse, degradation, marginalization. And for me, it becomes necessary to integrate the two.” He argues that ultimately, the character of a society manifests not in how it treats the rich and the privileged, but in how it treats “the poor, the condemned, the incarcerated.” Only when the country cares about human rights for everybody can it become a fully evolved society with compassion and justice.

About the Author

  • Xiaopan (Jenny) Ye is a program and research intern on Racial Justice at the Unitarian Universalist United Nations Office in the summer of 2018. A rising senior at Mount Holyoke College, she double majors in History and English, and focuses on modern European and African-...

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