The Four Institutions of Racial Injustice
Bryan Stevenson is a highly acclaimed public interest lawyer, founder and director of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery Alabama, and recipient of the MacArthur Scholarship. Over his career of nearly three decades, he has successfully argued in front of the Supreme Court, and along with his staff, he has exonerated over 125 wrongly condemned prisoners from death row. In the final chapter of his memoir, Just Mercy (Spiegel & Grau, 2015), he has this to say (emphasis mine):
I believe that so much of our worst thinking about justice is steeped in the myths of racial difference that still plague us. I believe that there are four institutions in American history that have shaped our approach to race and justice but remain poorly understood. The first, of course, is slavery. This was followed by the reign of terror that shaped the lives of people of color following the collapse of Reconstruction until World War II. Older people of color in the South would occasionally come up to me after speeches to complain about how antagonized they feel when they hear news commentators talking about how we were dealing with domestic terrorism for the first time in the United States after the 9/11 attacks. An older African American man once said to me, “You make them stop saying that! We grew up with terrorism all the time. The police, the Klan, anybody who was white could terrorize you. We had to worry about bombings and lynchings, racial violence of all kinds.”
The third institution, “Jim Crow”, is the legalized racial segregation and suppression of basic rights that defined the American apartheid era. It is more recent and is recognized in our national consciousness, but it is still not well understood. It seems to me that we’ve been quick to celebrate the achievements of the Civil Rights Movement and slow to recognize the damage done in that era. We have been unwilling to commit to a process of truth and reconciliation in which people are allowed to give voice to the difficulties created by racial segregation, racial subordination, and marginalization.
The legacy of racial profiling carries many of the same complications. Working on all of these juvenile cases across the country meant that I was frequently in courtrooms and communities where I’d never been before. Once I was preparing to do a hearing in a trial court in the Midwest and was sitting at counsel table in an empty courtroom before the hearing. I was wearing a dark suit, white shirt, and tie. The judge and the prosecutor entered through a door in the back of the courtroom laughing about something. When the judge saw me sitting at the defense table, he said to me harshly, “Hey, you shouldn’t be in here without counsel. Go back outside and wait in the hallway until your lawyer arrives.” I stood up and smiled broadly. I said, “Oh, I’m sorry, Your Honor, we haven’t met. My name is Bryan Stevenson, I am the lawyer on the case set for hearing this morning.” The judge laughed at his mistake, and the prosecutor joined in. I forced myself to laugh because I didn’t want my young client, a white child who had been prosecuted as an adult, to be disadvantaged by a conflict I had created with the judge before the hearing. But I was disheartened by the experience. Of course innocent mistakes occur, but the accumulated insults and indignations caused by racial presumptions are destructive in ways that are hard to measure. Constantly being suspected, accused, watched, doubted, distrusted, presumed guilty, and even feared is a burden borne by people of color that can’t be understood or confronted without a deeper conversation about our history of racial injustice.
The fourth institution is mass incarceration. Going into any prison is deeply confusing if you know anything about the racial demographics of America. The extreme overrepresentation of people of color, the disproportionate sentencing of racial minorities, the targeted prosecution of drug crimes in poor communities, the criminalization of new immigrants and undocumented people, the collateral consequences of voter disenfranchisement, and the barriers to re-entry can only be fully understood through the lens of our racial history.