Getting Closer to Justice

At his President's Speaker Series talk, human-rights lawyer Bryan Stevenson shared a message that justice is possible.

Human-rights lawyer Bryan Stevenson returned to Santa Clara University’s campus Jan. 14 to bring the message that justice in the age of Black Lives Matter is attainable – but not without some uncomfortable work on the part of all who seek it.

In a talk that was alternately heartwarming, heartbreaking and sobering, human-rights lawyer Bryan Stevenson returned to Santa Clara University’s campus Jan. 14 to bring the message that justice in the age of Black Lives Matter is attainable – but not without some uncomfortable work on the part of all who seek it.

Stevenson, the author of a memoir, Just Mercy, which is being made into a movie expected to star Michael B. Jordan, told a packed Mayer Theatre audience several stories that have become familiar to his fans: The hostile and racist prison security guard who was transformed after hearing Stevenson in court; the condemned man who motivated Stevenson by singing the gospel hymn “Higher Ground;” and the tragic experiences of a small 14-year-old sent to adult jail for killing the man he thought had killed his mother.

In addition to his many awards for his work including a MacArthur Foundation “Genius” Grant, Stevenson received the inaugural Katharine and George Alexander Law Prize  from Santa Clara University School of Law in 2008, and was the law school’s commencement speaker the following year. 

In his talk Thursday evening as part of SCU's President's Speaker Series,  he noted that in the past 40 years, America has gone from imprisoning 300,000 people to 2.3 million currently – the highest rate in the world – and to having 70 million people with criminal records, which make rejoining society far harder.

He went on to describe four changes that he said those who seek justice must undertake. The first, he said, was to “get proximate” to the problem of injustice, by physically going to where injustice occurs and seeing and hearing the details in person.

“We don’t solve problems effectively when we stay too far away,” he said, adding that he himself was the beneficiary of such an approach as a child. Human-rights lawyers came to Stevenson’s childhood hometown, where schools were still segregated and black children could not attend high school. The lawyers sued to enforce integration, enabling a young Stevenson to go to high school and later college, law and graduate school. “Lawyers came to my community, and they got proximate,” he said. 

Many of Stevenson's comments resonated with Santa Clara University's Jesuit-based values. "When Mr. Stevenson spoke of  being proximate to the problems we face, it echoed a core Jesuit concept of accompaniment, which teaches us to be an involved companion, not a detached observer, with those we wish to serve," said President Michael E. Engh, S.J.

Another change Stevenson advocated was to “change the narrative that sustains injustice.” He said policies and laws may be unfair, but they are sustained by false narratives such as the notion that drug addicts are dangerous criminals, or that some children aren’t kids, but rather “super predators.” As a result of such scare-tactic narratives, 250,000 people who were convicted as children are now serving long sentences, 3,000 of them sentenced to die in prison without parole.

“When you are afraid and angry you won’t worry about the rights that get abused, you won’t worry about what’s fair,” he said. “You’ll just do the thing that makes you feel better.”

He said many current problems stem from America’s failure to change the inherited narrative of racial disparity, or to confront its history of racial inequality including the genocide of native people or slavery and its aftermath. Other countries that enslaved people did not justify their own practice by saying some races are biologically inferior, as America did, Stevenson noted. “I don’t think the great evil of American slavery was involuntary servitude,… (it) was the narrative of racial difference that we created to legitimate it,” he said, noting that led to lynchings and discrimination long after 1865.

Despite what he said is an overly celebratory attitude about civil rights in this country, he argued that “the demographic geography of America was shaped by racial terrorism” that has not yet been fully acknowledged or reconciled. “I want to put markers at every lynching site in America,” he said. 

His final suggestions were to protect a sense of hope and to be willing to do uncomfortable things and “be a witness,” so that injustice will be challenged and eventually changed. He said  there are “lots of opportunities to engage in this struggle” right from SCU’s campus, be it law school volunteerism or helping prisoners re-entering society to attain life and job skills.

“I believe that we really can create more justice,” he said, before receiving a standing ovation.