Addressing American Injustice

Worried about the state of the world? Don’t get mad, says Bryan Stevenson. Get proximate.

“We need Swarthmore students and members of this community to get closer to the people and sections of our community rife with suffering and neglect,” says Stevenson, a preeminent social justice lawyer, activist, and best-selling author. “If you go into these places thinking ‘I’m proximate, I’m present, I’m ready to listen and to learn and to serve,’ I promise you that good things will come out of it.”

Stevenson offered this message in his lecture, “American Injustice: Mercy, Humanity, and Making a Difference,” in the Lang Performing Arts Center (LPAC) earlier this month. The event, sponsored by the President's Office, the Lang Center for Social & Civic Responsibility, and the Black Cultural Center, was conceptualized as a capstone to Black History Month and the culminating event of a year-long Public Discourse & Democracy series.

Weaving flashpoints of bigotry and injustice he experienced in his life with a four-step approach to fostering equality, Stevenson captivated the capacity crowd.

President Valerie Smith introduced Stevenson, deeming him “an international inspiration” for his “inspiring vision and transformation and tireless efforts in the service of social justice.” Hundreds of members of the College and greater community then greeted Stevenson with an extended standing ovation as he took the stage.

Stevenson, founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative and a clinical professor at New York University School of Law, started by citing the talent and compassion permeating the College community, and the impact those can make on the world. But he stressed how critical it is to go beyond campus.

“Your capacity to be great at whatever you’re trying to do is waiting for you in places of poverty and exclusion, of suffering and injustice,” Stevenson says. “It’s when you get proximate that you discover your power.”

For example, Stevenson cited Swarthmore’s "Inside Out" program," in which students and prison inmates in Chester, Pa., engage one another through the Lang Center's Urban Inequality and Incarceration Program.

“It’s about going in and seeing and understanding things that you cannot from a distance,” he says.

The second step to promoting equality, says Stevenson, is to change the narratives that sustain injustice. And that begins by people recognizing that “silence is often the essential ingredient in sustaining inequality and the abuse of rights,” he says, “and we’ve got to break that silence.”

Key to that narrative has been America’s treatment of drugs as a crime issue, rather than a health issue, says Stevenson. As a result, the number of incarcerations has jumped from 300,000 to 2.3 million since 1970, with another six million on probation or parole. Today, one in three black male babies is expected to go to jail, and one in six Latino, he says. 

“We can’t be a society that presumes to care about children without standing by the ones most in need, most neglected, most disadvantaged,” Stevenson says. “It’s far past time to change the narrative. All children are children.”

The third step, says Stevenson, is to fight against hopelessness — “the enemy of all we’re trying to achieve.”

“Injustice prevails where hopelessness persists,” he adds. “If you say, ‘I can’t do anything about that, that problem is just too much,’ then you’re part of that problem. There’s no middle ground.”

Stevenson told a story about a prison guard who had a truck with bigoted bumper stickers, refused to acknowledge him as an attorney, and insisted on strip searching him before allowing him to see his client. However, once the guard heard of the inmate’s awful experiences in foster homes, which reminded him of his own, he started treating Stevenson with respect and urged him to keep up the fight for justice.

“That taught me to never write off any person or group,” he says. “You cannot change the world if you are unwilling to believe things you haven’t seen.”

For the fourth step, Stevenson implored the crowd to get comfortable with being uncomfortable.

“If we’re going to change the world, we’re going to have to be willing to be witnesses,” he says, citing previous triumphs in the struggle for civil rights. “The only way it’s ever happened is when good people were willing to do uncomfortable things, were willing to fight.”

Stevenson recalled speaking on the phone with a death row inmate who thanked him for fighting for his life and was, moments later, executed. Devastated, Stevenson wanted to quit his job. But after some soul searching, he realized he had to keep going. “Not just because no one else will," he said, "or to promote justice and human rights. But because I, too, am broken.” He explained:

“You’ll get beat up a little, you’ll get cut and nicked, there’ll be tears and moments of anguish and suffering, and you’ll get to point where you’re not sure you’ll go on. But I’m here to tell you it’s the broken among us who will lead us to this new world I’m talking about. It’s the broken, the marginalized, the poor, the excluded who have to be part of this movement to lead this country to truly be great.”

Stevenson followed the speech with a book-signing session, in which he engaged with a long line of audience members. Earlier in the day, he had dinner with a large group of students, faculty, and staff, trading insights and perspectives. He also sat down for an extensive interview for The Phoenix with Jasmine Rashid '18, who took the "Inside Out" class on Urban Crime and Punishment in the fall and considers Stevenson "a longtime hero."

"When you meet one of your heroes, there's always the fear that they won't live up to your great expectations of them," says Rashid, a peace and conflict studies major from Oyster Bay, N.Y., and a Lang Center associate for art and culture for social action. "However, Mr. Stevenson was even more genuinely humble, empowering, and inspiring than I could have asked for."

"His lecture has inspired me greatly to continue to do my part in our collective struggle against excessive punishment, mass incarceration, and racial inequality," she adds, "all while keeping mercy at the forefront."

"There's always the need for me to balance academia with activism and engaged scholarship seems to be the way to do this," says Coleman Powell '20, of Louisville, Ky., a student leader in the Lang Center who attended the dinner with Stevenson. "[The lecture] was excellent in that it was the most clear argument for engaged scholarship and radical empathy that I have encountered."

Bryan Stevenson's talk is available for viewing on campus.