The 'real American story' about racial justice

Rog and Bee Walker for EJI

With the United States election of 3 November just days away and race relations one of the biggest policy issues at stake, who better to ask where Joe Biden and President Trump’s records stand on racial justice, or injustice, than one of the country’s top civil rights crusaders? 

Bryan Stevenson is the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), a US non-profit organisation that has represented hundreds of people in the criminal justice system who have been illegally convicted, unfairly sentenced, or abused in state prisons.

The Harvard University-trained lawyer has dedicated his life pursuing racial equality and standing up for the marginalised, including people on death row, minors prosecuted as adults, and people with mental illnesses.

Already a well-known figure, he moved further into the spotlight in 2012 with his widely circulated TED talk followed by the release of his memoir “Just Mercy”, now a feature film starring Michael B Jordan.

In 2018, Stevenson opened the nation’s first museum and memorial dedicated to the legacy of enslaved Black people and to the thousands of victims of lynching after his team of researchers at EJI spent years going through court records and documenting lynchings of the 20th century.

To add to his long list of accolades, Stevenson was recently named one of the four winners of the 2020 Right Livelihood Award, also known as Sweden’s alternative Nobel prize. Headquartered in Stockholm, the foundation does much of advocacy work out of its Geneva office supporting laureates like Stevenson in having their issues heard at UN sessions.

On receiving his award, Geneva Solutions asked Stevenson about the state of race relations in the US, the criminal justice system, and the role that international organisations can play in holding the US to task on its human rights record.

On receiving the award you talked about what it meant for you at this time of uncertainty around achieving justice in America. Can you expand on that in the context of the presidential elections?

We are really struggling in America. We have never acknowledged the long history of racial inequality that I think continues to undermine our ability to be a just society. The legacy of slavery, the genocide of indigenous people, the lynching and a century of cogified racial hierarchy have really corrupted the environment in this country. There is a smog in the air. And for too long, too many have assumed that this will dissipate in time and I just don’t think it works that way. We are going to have to do hard work to correct and confront and overcome our very challenging history of racism and racial hierarchy. Police violence is a direct manifestation of this problem.

It also comes at the same time where there are alot of threats to democracy in this nation. The rise of politics of fear and anger has eroded confidence in public institutions. The President has shown a disregard for many of the conventions and protocols that have maintained the level of confidence and security and I think that creates a lot of anxiety. We are very divided at this moment and I have never seen people hesitate on the unacceptability of things like white supremacy the way that we have seen in recent weeks.

So yes, it is a critical moment. And for those who fight for the vulnerable, for people like me who are trying to end over-incarceration, for those of us who are trying to push the nation to reckon with this history of racial inequality, this is overwhelming. Which is why I am very gratified by this recognition and encouraged that others see the work that we (the Equal Justice Initiative) are doing as valuable and necessary.

Election day is fast approaching. What hopes do you have of reform of the US criminal justice system under either Biden and Trump?

I think we have made progress and engaged people on the substantial peril of having the highest incarceration rate in the world before Trump’s election. The largely bi-partisan consensus is that we need to do more to get people out of jails and prisons and we overreacted to the problem and addictions and dependency. And earlier in President’s Trump tenure the first setback was the consensus that he could do better when it comes to criminal justice. That has largely expanded in the last year or two where the rhetoric around criminality has increased.

So I do think a new leadership there is going to have to be a necessity to engage in some sort of social reform…there are many of us who have said specifically that the thing that has caused people to take to the streets in an unprecedented way has been concern about how we administer justice in this country and so I think this has to be a priority and similarly, the problem of racial inequality and racial bias has to be a priority as well. We will see what happens.

You have been campaigning to end excessive sentencing practices and mass incarceration. How would you like to see the next administration confronting this?

I hope they recognise that different reforms that happened in the 1980s and 1990s have been a failure and we are going to have to amend many of those laws that have contributed to  higher rates of incarceration. We have thousands of innocent people in our jails and prisons who can’t get their cases reviewed because of the 1996 Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act. We have prisons that have become faces of horrific violence and torture and  inhumane treatment because of the of the Litigation Reform Act of 1996 (the act makes it harder for prisoners to file lawsuits in federal court). There are millions of dollars being spent to arrest and imprison people with addictions and dependency and we should shift from that.  Addiction isn't a crime problem as much of a health problem and if we had a healthcare approach, that would save a lot of money and help families and communities…Everyone made mistakes in the 1980s and the 1990s on these issues. Both political parties at the time dodged how to manage this. We urge them to recognise that and implement the changes that are needed to improve public safety and create opportunites for the whole population.

What is your message to U.N. representatives, NGOs, and international organisations working in the field of human rights here in Geneva?

I’m hoping we can get the international community to recognise the nature of the problems that we face in the United States. The legacy of slavery in this country and of racial inequality continues to have a devastating impact on the rights of people of colour and vulnerable populations. The Bureau of Justice has projected that one in three black male babies born in the US are expected to go to prison during his lifetime and that is a tragedy that needs to be addressed.

So, I think there is a lot to learn frankly that is not well understood and when UN officials and NGOs come to America and spend all of their time in New York and Washington D.C., they miss an important part of the American story.  I would love to invite them to come to Montgomery and see our side of trying to prevent this history of racial inequality, of racial terrorism, of segregation. You come to the American south you have a very different picture of what the challenges are. I do think that exposure is going to be important for anyone trying to assess the rights and struggles to protect basic human dignity around the world.