THE REPENTANCE PROJECT / AN AMERICAN LENT
WEEK VI / DAY VI
Saturday, March 24, 2018
Excerpt from Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson — Published in 2014
"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 racial terrorism of lynching in many ways created the modern death penalty. America’s embrace of speedy executions was, in part, an attempt to redirect the violent energies of lynching while assuring white southerners that black men would still pay the ultimate price.
"Convict leasing was introduced at the end of the nineteenth century to criminalize former slaves and convict them of nonsensical offenses so that freed men, women, and children could be 'leased' to businesses and effectively forced back into slave labor. Private industries throughout the country made millions of dollars with free convict labor, while thousands of African Americans died in horrific work conditions. The practice of re-enslavement was so widespread in some states that it was characterized in a Pulitzer Prize-winning book by Douglas Blackmon as Slavery by Another Name. But the practice is not well known to most Americans.
"During the terror era there were hundreds of ways in which people of color could commit a social transgression or offend someone that might cost them their lives. Racial terror and the constant threat created by violently enforced racial hierarchy were profoundly traumatizing for African Americans. Absorbing these psychosocial realities created all kinds of distortions and difficulties that manifest themselves today in multiple ways.
"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. Because I was born during a time when the stigma of racial hierarchy and Jim Crow had real consequences for the ways my elders had to act or react to a variety of indignations, I was mindful of the way that the daily humiliations and insults accumulated.
"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 yet. 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 any 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." (Stevenson, 2014:299-301)
Stevenson, Bryan. (2014) Just Mercy. New York City: Spiegel & Grau.
Compiled by Bill Haley