Politics & Government

Bryan Stevenson talks about black men, police, Obama, the South

Bryan Stevenson founded the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Ala., in 1989. He’s written a book, “Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption,” which chronicles his years defending innocent people condemned to death.
Bryan Stevenson founded the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Ala., in 1989. He’s written a book, “Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption,” which chronicles his years defending innocent people condemned to death. Courtesy of Penguin Random House

Q. You have said a person who is rich and guilty has a better chance in the criminal justice system than someone who is poor and innocent.

A. We have stratifications in this society that do treat people differently, based on wealth and status. And, yes, I think the criminal justice system is a really perfect example of the way in which wealth, not culpability, shapes outcomes. All of the people who are wrongly convicted are convicted because they can’t get the resources to overcome a presumption of guilt that they’ve been burdened with.

Q. Let me ask you about a story that is continually in the headlines: Police interactions with black males.

A. I think it is societal and institutional. We have allowed this narrative of racial difference to infiltrate the way we see the world, the way we see each other. And I think there’s a presumption of guilt and dangerousness that gets assigned to black people in this country. It’s been made and crafted over several centuries. And even people who would never acknowledge being racist or discriminatory will act on that presumption of dangerousness and guilt. Police officers are going to be on the front lines. And if they’re carrying that presumption along with them, then they’re going to act in ways that are resulting in higher abuse of people of color. The studies back it up. You can call it implicit bias. But almost everywhere you go, when you look at who gets stopped, who gets searched, who gets menaced, who gets threatened, who is suspected, race plays an extremely significant role.

Q. What do you say to those who argue that black males are responsible for much of the violence out there?

A. The prime category that generates the most attention from police is actually not violence. You don’t randomly stop people for suspicion of violence. You randomly stop people for things like traffic moving violations, drug possession, etc. And in those categories, there is no evidence that men of color offend more than other people. There’s no evidence out there that says young men of color drive faster than young white men. Even in the drug arena, the evidence suggests that young men of color do not use drugs illegally more than young white people.

Q. One of your signature issues is ending the practice of putting juveniles in adult jails. What would your message be to the legislature in North Carolina, where – despite efforts to raise the age – 16- and 17-year-olds are still routinely prosecuted as adults?

A. We now have an understanding of adolescent development and juvenile decision-making and behavior that makes ignoring child status really inappropriate. It ends up being cruel. Every parent knows that the expectations you have of your 16-year-old are different than the expectations you can have for a full-grown, 30-some-year-old adult. We know that they need guidance and parenting and are going to make mistakes and are going to need some monitoring and feedback as they make their way into adulthood. To suggest that poor kids and kids who commit serious crimes are different and somehow less needing of that guidance and oversight and understanding is really kind of indefensible in my view.

Q. Has President Obama done enough for the cause of equal justice?

A. I don’t think any president can do enough until we achieve what we’re looking to do. There’s always going to be more to do. I’m encouraged that he created this policing task force in response to the violence. I’m encouraged that he’s speaking out in favor of restoring the Voting Rights Act. I’m encouraged by some of the appointments he’s made. So I’m not critical of the president in the way that I could be because I don’t see it as entirely his responsibility.

Q. Obama was elected and re-elected. But if you look at vote totals, there was a racial divide. Still, does it say anything about America that we have elected and re-elected an African-American president?

A. I’m actually pretty dispirited by some of the voting evidence. Here in Alabama, President Obama received less than 13 percent of the white vote in 2008, and that was the lowest that any Democratic candidate has received in a presidential election in our history. And so, I think there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that things are still pretty racialized. I think the tenor and character of some of the debate around issues that have emerged during his presidency have reinforced that. If anything, the number of complaints that we get about overt bigotry and bias has increased over the last six or seven years, in part because I think his election has stirred a lot of animosity and resentment and resistance to the idea that things can move forward.

Q. We hear a lot about terrorism these days. And you use that term to describe the nearly 4,000 lynchings that took place in the South, including in North Carolina, from 1877 to 1950.

A. I don’t think we ever confronted the violence and the seriousness of lynching. We tended to think about it as acts of violence against individuals when, in fact, it was terrorism. It was a really profound expression of these attitudes and values and narratives that had shaped the South. It was only the threat of federal intervention that got lynchings to recede. We do use the word terrorism quite intentionally, because now we understand, based on what’s happened to us, that a terrorist is someone we don’t like. A terrorist is someone we can’t respect. We’d be ready to invade any country that wanted to celebrate Osama bin Laden and wanted to make his birthday a holiday. We would be so provoked by that. And yet, in this region, we allow people who terrorized and lynched and sustained this kind of violence to not only never be held accountable but to be romanticized and celebrated.

Q. What’s your sense of where North Carolina is these days on issues important to you?

A. I think a lot of people have been very hopeful about North Carolina because there have been signs and evidence of real transformation. I think the South needs that. Some of the more recent developments in your state are reminiscent of the Old South, where people are becoming oppositional to things that advance racial justice. You all had a Racial Justice Act to respond to these terrible disparities in death sentences in your state. (Yet) you had a legislature that actually felt comfortable revoking, eliminating a Racial Justice Act which, with our history of racial injustice, you would think that there would be no will for that. So there are challenges. I think a lot of people are still hopeful that North Carolina will emerge as a true New South jurisdiction where the legacy and pain of our racial history doesn’t dominate and shape everything. But there’s still work to be done.

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