Why Can't We Talk About An Injustice?

Mar 14, 2014
Originally published on April 20, 2015 2:08 pm

Part 4 of the TED Radio Hour episode Solving It.

About Bryan Stevenson's TED Talk

Lawyer Bryan Stevenson shares some hard truths about how America's criminal justice system works against the poor and people of color. He argues that these issues are wrapped up in America's unexamined history.

About Bryan Stevenson

Lawyer Bryan Stevenson has dedicated his career to helping the poor, the incarcerated and the condemned. He's the founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, an Alabama-based group that has won major legal challenges eliminating excessive and unfair sentencing, exonerating innocent prisoners on death row, and confronting abuse of the incarcerated and the mentally ill.

Stevenson's work fighting poverty and challenging racial discrimination in the criminal justice system has won him numerous awards, including a MacArthur fellowship and 14 honorary doctorate degrees.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.


It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. And on today's show - solving it. Ideas on how to fix some of our broken systems. So back in the 1980's, Bryan Stevenson was suffering through his first year of law school. He just hated it. Torts, civil procedure contracts - just totally miserable. But that all changed after he get an internship with a very small law firm in Georgia.

BRYAN STEVENSON: And what really sealed the deal for me was when they asked me to go to death row and just explain to someone who they hadn't had time to meet that he wasn't at risk of execution anytime in the next year. And I went down there, and spent time with this man. And I was really nervous and was very, very stressed out about talking to a condemned person when I didn't know very much about the appeals process. I didn't know much criminal law. I didn't know much procedure. But when I got there and I explained to that man that he wasn't at risk of execution anytime in the next 12 months, he grabbed my hands and said say that again.

And I said it again. I said you're not at risk of execution anytime in the next 12 months. And he said say that again. And I said it again. I said you're not at risk of execution anytime in the next 12 months. And we just fell into this deep conversation that was incredibly affirming for me. And I learned that proximity to people who are suffering, who are in need, who are condemned, who are excluded, who are marginalized can be transformative. And even if you don't feel fully prepared for it, it has a way of energizing you. And I wanted to be the kind of lawyer that could make a difference in the lives of people who were very vulnerable.

RAZ: And since that experience, Bryan started the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama. He's trying to fix what he thinks is broken about our criminal justice system. Here's Bryan on the TED stage.


STEVENSON: This country is very different today than it was 40 years ago. In 1972, there were 300,000 people in jails and prisons. Today, there are 2.3 million. The United States now has the highest rate of incarceration in the world. We have 7 million people on probation and parole. And mass incarceration, in my judgment, has fundamentally changed our world. In poor communities and communities of color, there is this despair, there is this hopelessness that is being shaped by these outcomes. One out of three black men between the ages of 18 and 30 is in jail, in prison, on probation or parole. Our system isn't just being shaped in these way that seem to be distorting around race, they're also distorted by poverty. We have a system of justice in this country that treats you much better if you're rich and guilty then if you're poor and innocent.

Wealth, not culpability, shapes outcomes. And yet, we seem to be very comfortable. The politics of fear and anger has made us believe that these are problems that are not our problems. We've been disconnected. My state of Alabama, like a number of states, actually permanently disenfranchises you if you have a criminal conviction. Right now in Alabama, 34 percent of the black male population has permanently lost the right to vote. We're actually projecting in another 10 years, the level of disenfranchisement will be as high as it's been since prior to the passage of the Voting Rights Act, and there is this stunning silence.

RAZ: So how is that possible?

STEVENSON: When I was born, the expectation was not that one in three black babies would go to jail or prison. That's true today in ways that has never been true before. You know, we still have, you know, over 40 percent of children of color living below the federal poverty level. They're going up in communities that are just as racially segregated as the community I grew up in. They go to schools where there are no white students or white teachers. They're being threatened by a criminal justice system that will arrest them, that is teaching them in subtle and direct ways that they are destined for jail and prison. And in many ways, their struggle is not unlike the struggle of their parents and grandparents and their great-grandparents.

RAZ: And that's especially true when it comes to questions like, who end up on death row and who doesn't.


STEVENSON: In the states of the old South, we execute people, where you're 11 times more likely to get the death penalty if the victim is white than if the victim is black. Twenty-two times more likely to get it if the defendant is black and the victim is white. And the various states where there are, buried in the ground, the bodies of people who were lynched. And yet, there is this disconnect. In many ways, we've been taught to think that the real question is do people deserve to die for the crimes they've committed? And that's a very sensible question. The other way of thinking about it is not do people deserve to die for the crimes they commit, but do we deserve to kill? Well, I talk a lot about these issues. I talk about race and this question of whether we deserve to kill. And it's interesting, when I teach my students about African-American history, I tell them about slavery. I tell them about terrorism, the era that began at the end of Reconstruction that went on to World War II. We don't really know much about it, but for African-Americans in this country, that was an era defined by terror. In many communities, people had to worry about being lynched, they had to worry about being bombed. It was the threat of terror that shaped their lives. And these older people come up to me now, they tell me to say - you know, tell them that we grew up with that. And that era of terrorism was - of course, was followed by segregation, decades of racial subordination and apartheid.

And yet, 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. And because of that, we really haven't understood what it's meant to do the things we've done historically. We're constantly running into each other. We're constantly creating tensions and conflicts. We have a hard time talking about race. And I believe it's because we are unwilling to commit ourselves to a process of truth and reconciliation. In South Africa, people understood that we couldn't overcome apartheid without a commitment to truth and reconciliation. In Rwanda, even after the genocide, there was this commitment. But in this country, we haven't done that.

RAZ: You know, when you, like, you love somebody, but there's something painful that happens between you and somebody else, right? And it's very hard to confront it and to deal with it. And often times, it destroys relationships, right.


RAZ: You just don't want to talk about it. And for a variety of reasons, maybe it's pride or fear of reprisal or ego. And that's on a very small, human-to-human scale, right.


RAZ: And then you think about a bigger, much bigger scale. And you begin to say, well, why is it so hard for a society to talk about that? Like, is it about guilt? Is it about shame? Is it about fear of what might come next? Like, you must have asked yourself this question. Why can't America do that?

STEVENSON: Well, I think it is all of those things. I think that we do want to be proud as everyone does. We are afraid that we might lose power to acknowledge our weakness, our failure. And we actually have never developed a political tradition that values remedy, that values apology, that values humility. And I think we have to make that transition. I really do. I think this country will be a healthier place, a stronger place when we actually embrace the humility that is required when you're trying to do complex things.

You know, when we start talking about apologies and reflecting on things like, you know, slavery or terrorism or lynching or civil rights or a whole host of things, it shouldn't make us fearful and worried about whether we're going to give up power. It ought to make us excited that we finally have a chance to do something, to deal with this still-festering wound because we're not going to become strong and healthy until we do that. And it's not something we have in our national DNA to practice humility, to practice reflection on our mistakes, our abuses. But I think we have to cultivate that if we're going to become the kind of society that we want.


STEVENSON: Well, I believe that our identity is at risk. That when we actually don't care about these difficult things, the positive and wonderful things are nonetheless implicated. We love innovation. We love technology. We love creativity. We love entertainment, but ultimately, those realities are shadowed by suffering, abuse, degradation, marginalization. And for me, it becomes necessary to integrate the two. Because ultimately, we are talking about a need to be more hopeful, more committed, more dedicated to the basic challenges of living in a complex world. And for me, that means spending time thinking and talking about the poor, the disadvantaged, those who will never get to TED. But thinking about them in a way that is integrated in our own lives.

Vaclav Havel, the great Czech leader, talked about this. He said that when we were in Eastern Europe and dealing with oppression, we wanted all kind of things. But mostly what we needed was hope and orientation of the spirit, a willingness to sometimes be in hopeless places and be a witness. Well, that orientation of the spirit is very much at the core of what I believe even TED communities have to be engaged in. Now I will warn you that this kind of identity is a much more challenging identity than the ones that don't pay attention to this. It will get to you. I had the great privilege when I was a young lawyer of meeting Rosa Parks. And Ms. Parks used to come back to Montgomery every now and then. And she would get together with two of her dearest friends, these older women, Johnnie Carr, who was the organizer of the Montgomery bus boycott - an amazing African-American woman - and Virginia Durr, a white woman, whose husband, Clifford Durr, represented Doctor King. And these women would get together and just talk.

And every now and then, Ms. Carr would call me and she'd say, Bryan, Ms. Parks is coming to town, and we're going to get together and talk. Do you want to come over and listen? And I'd say yes, ma'am I do. And she'd say, well, what are you going to do when you get here? I said I'm going to listen. And I'd go over there, and I would. I would just listen. It would be so energizing and so empowering. And one time, I was over there listening to these women talk. And after a couple of hours, Ms. Parks turned to me, and she said now, Bryan, tell me what the Equal Justice Initiative is. Tell me what you're trying to do. I began giving her my rap. I said, well, we're trying to challenge injustice. We're trying to help people who have been wrongly convicted. We're trying to confront a bias in discrimination in the administration of criminal justice. We're trying to end life without parole sentences for children. We're trying to do something about the death penalty. We're trying to reduce the prison population. We're trying to end mass incarceration. I gave her my whole rap, and when I finished, she looked at me and she said. Mhm, mhm, mhm.


STEVENSON: She said that's going to make you tired, tired, tired. And that's when Ms. Carr leaned forward. She put her finger on my face and she said that's why you've got to be brave, brave, brave. And I actually believe that the TED community needs to be more courageous. We need to find ways to embrace these challenges, these problems, the suffering because, ultimately, our humanity depends on everyone's humanity. Each of us is more than the worst thing we've ever done. I think if somebody tells a lie, they're not just a liar. I think if somebody takes something that doesn't belong to them, they're not just a thief. I think even if you kill someone, you're not just a killer. And because of that, there's this basic human dignity that must be respected by law. I also believe that in many parts of this country, that the opposite of poverty is not wealth. I actually think in too many places, the opposite of poverty is justice.

And finally, I believe we will ultimately not be judged by our technology. We won't be judged by our design. We won't be judged by our intellect and reason. Ultimately, you judge the character of a society, not by how they treat their rich and the powerful and the privileged, but by how they treat the poor, the condemned, the incarcerated because it's in that nexus that we actually begin to understand truly profound things about who we are.

I've come to TED because I believe that many of you understand that the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice. That we can't be full, evolved, human beings until we care about human rights and basic dignity. That all of our survival is tied to the survival of everyone. That our visions of technology and design and entertainment and creativity have to be married with the visions of humanity, compassion and justice. And more than anything for those of you who share that, I've simply come to tell you to keep your eyes on the prize. Hold on. Thank you very much.


RAZ: Your standing ovation, I think, still holds the record for the longest in TED history. You struck a chord when you spoke there. And when it was over, people didn't want to stop. They wanted to be part of that, part of what you want everybody, I guess, to be a part of.

STEVENSON: Well, people were really kind, and I was very moved by that. And I'm frequently moved by the capacity of other human beings to say carry-on, to do something compassionate, to do something energizing. You know that that audience, you know, reflected a little bit of that is very encouraging. I just gave a talk in a poor, rural church in the black belt of Alabama not too long ago. And there was an older man in a wheelchair there. And this man was staring at me the whole time I was talking. He had a very intense expression. And after people came up, they were very kind and shaking hands, and he just sat there in this chair. And he had a little boy wheel him up to me.

And the man came up to me and he said do you know what you're doing? And he had this very stern look on his face, and he started pointing his finger. And I was actually taken aback. I just didn't say anything. I stood back. I didn't say anything. He said it again. He said do you know what you're doing? And I said I think so, sir. I said I don't know And then he looked at me and he said I'll tell you what you're doing. You're beating the drum for justice. And he said come here, come here, come here, come here. Look here. He said you see this bruise I got on the back of my neck? He said I got that bruise in Green County Alabama trying to register people to vote in 1961. He said you see this scar I have on my forehead? He said I got that scar in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963. He said you see this cut over here? I got that in Selma, Alabama.

He said people look at me, and they think they see cuts and bruises and scars. And then he said to me, he said these aren't my cuts and bruises. He said these are my medals of honor. And he said the greatest thing I can hope for you is that you are covered with medals of honor's when you're finished beating the drum. And it's stuff like that that is so empowering to me and so energizing to me. And whether you're affluent or poor, there are ways to expressing to the human beings around that it makes sense to struggle for justice, that it makes sense to fight for peace and justice and to protect basic human rights and dignity. And so it is a constant struggle in my mind. And where people are prepared to struggle and motivated to struggle and committed to struggle, then you can have great hope of justice.

RAZ: That's Bryan Stevenson. His group, the Equal Justice Initiative, just marked its 25th anniversary. You can watch his full talk at TED.NPR.org.


UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER: (Singing) Look, look. Where? I found the answers. He found the answers. They were giving - giving - them away. It's like a crossword or suduko. You've got to, got to, got to give me a clue 'cause a puzzle's no fun when the answers are dumb. But I'll keep searching. I'll keep guessing. I'll keep searching. And I'll keep guessing.

RAZ: Thanks for listening to the show solving it, this week. If you missed any of it or you want to hear more or you want to find out more about who was on it, you can visit TED. NPR.org. You can also find many more TED Talks at TED.com. And you can download this program through iTunes or through the NPR smartphone app. I'm Guy Raz. You've been listening to ideas worth spreading here on the TED Radio Hour from NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.