Transcript – Bryan Stevenson, a public-interest lawyer, on We Need to Talk About an Injustice at TED conference
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Bryan Stevenson – Public-Interest Lawyer
Well this is a really extraordinary honor for me. I spend most of my time in jails, in prisons, on death row. I spend most of my time in very low-income communities in the projects and places where there’s a great deal of hopelessness. And being here at TED and seeing the stimulation, hearing it, has been very, very energizing to me. And one of the things that’s emerged in my short time here is that TED has an identity. And you can actually say things here that have impacts around the world. And sometimes when it comes through TED, it has meaning and power that it doesn’t have when it doesn’t.
And I mention that because I think identity is really important. And we’ve had some fantastic presentations. And I think what we’ve learned is that, if you’re a teacher your words can be meaningful, but if you’re a compassionate teacher, they can be especially meaningful. If you’re a doctor you can do some good things, but if you’re a caring doctor you can do some other things. And so I want to talk about the power of identity. And I didn’t learn about this actually practicing law and doing the work that I do. I actually learned about this from my grandmother.
I grew up in a house that was the traditional African-American home that was dominated by a matriarch, and that matriarch was my grandmother. She was tough, she was strong, she was powerful. She was the end of every argument in our family. She was the beginning of a lot of arguments in our family. She was the daughter of people who were actually enslaved. Her parents were born in slavery in Virginia in the 1840’s. She was born in the 1880’s and the experience of slavery very much shaped the way she saw the world.
And my grandmother was tough, but she was also loving. When I would see her as a little boy, she’d come up to me and she’d give me these hugs. And she’d squeeze me so tight I could barely breathe and then she’d let me go. And an hour or two later, if I saw her, she’d come over to me and she’d say, “Bryan, do you still feel me hugging you?” And if I said, “No,” she’d assault me again, and if I said, “Yes,” she’d leave me alone. And she just had this quality that you always wanted to be near her. And the only challenge was that she had 10 children. My mom was the youngest of her 10 kids. And sometimes when I would go and spend time with her, it would be difficult to get her time and attention. My cousins would be running around everywhere.
And I remember, when I was about eight or nine years old, waking up one morning, going into the living room, and all of my cousins were running around. And my grandmother was sitting across the room staring at me. And at first I thought we were playing a game. And I would look at her and I’d smile, but she was very serious. And after about 15 or 20 minutes of this, she got up and she came across the room and she took me by the hand and she said, “Come on, Bryan. You and I are going to have a talk.” And I remember this just like it happened yesterday. I never will forget it.
She took me out back and she said, “Bryan, I’m going to tell you something, but you don’t tell anybody what I tell you.”
I said, “Okay, Mama.”
She said, “Now you make sure you don’t do that.”
I said, “Sure.”
Then she sat me down and she looked at me and she said, “I want you to know I’ve been watching you.” And she said, “I think you’re special.” She said, “I think you can do anything you want to do.” I will never forget it.
And then she said, “I just need you to promise me three things, Bryan.”
I said, “Okay, Mama.”
She said, “The first thing I want you to promise me is that you’ll always love your mom.” She said, “That’s my baby girl, and you have to promise me now you’ll always take care of her.”
Well I adored my mom, so I said, “Yes, Mama. I’ll do that.”
Then she said, “The second thing I want you to promise me is that you’ll always do the right thing even when the right thing is the hard thing.”
And I thought about it and I said, “Yes, Mama. I’ll do that.”
Then finally she said, “The third thing I want you to promise me is that you’ll never drink alcohol.”
Well I was nine years old, so I said, “Yes, Mama. I’ll do that.”
I grew up in the country in the rural South, and I have a brother a year older than me and a sister a year younger. When I was about 14 or 15, one day my brother came home and he had this six-pack of beer — I don’t know where he got it — and he grabbed me and my sister and we went out in the woods. And we were kind of just out there doing the stuff we crazily did. And he had a sip of this beer and he gave some to my sister and she had some, and they offered it to me.
I said, “No, no, no. That’s okay. You all go ahead. I’m not going to have any beer.”
My brother said, “Come on. We’re doing this today; you always do what we do. I had some, your sister had some. Have some beer.”
I said, “No, I don’t feel right about that. Y’all go ahead. Y’all go ahead.”
And then my brother started staring at me. He said, “What’s wrong with you? Have some beer.”
Then he looked at me real hard and he said, “Oh, I hope you’re not still hung up on that conversation Mama had with you.”
I said, “Well, what are you talking about?”
He said, “Oh, Mama tells all the grandkids that they’re special.”
I was devastated.
And I’m going to admit something to you. I’m going to tell you something I probably shouldn’t. I know this might be broadcast broadly. But I’m 52 years old, and I’m going to admit to you that I’ve never had a drop of alcohol. I don’t say that because I think that’s virtuous; I say that because there is power in identity. When we create the right kind of identity, we can say things to the world around us that they don’t actually believe makes sense. We can get them to do things that they don’t think they can do. When I thought about my grandmother, of course she would think all her grandkids were special. My grandfather was in prison during prohibition. My male uncles died of alcohol-related diseases. And these were the things she thought we needed to commit to.
Well I’ve been trying to say something about our criminal justice system. This country is very different today than it was 40 years ago. In 1972, there were 300,000 people in jails and prisons. Today, there are 2.3 million. The United States now has the highest rate of incarceration in the world. We have 7 million people on probation and parole. And mass incarceration, in my judgment, has fundamentally changed our world. In poor communities, in communities of color there is this despair, there is this hopelessness, that is being shaped by these outcomes. One out of three black men between the ages of 18 and 30 is in jail, in prison, on probation or parole. In urban communities across this country — Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington – 50% to 60% of all young men of color are in jail or prison or on probation or parole.
Our system isn’t just being shaped in these ways that seem to be distorting around race, they’re also distorted by poverty. We have a system of justice in this country that treats you much better if you’re rich and guilty than if you’re poor and innocent. Wealth, not culpability, shapes outcomes. And yet, we seem to be very comfortable. The politics of fear and anger have made us believe that these are problems that are not our problems. We’ve been disconnected.
It’s interesting to me. We’re looking at some very interesting developments in our work. My state of Alabama, like a number of states, actually permanently disenfranchises you if you have a criminal conviction. Right now in Alabama 34% of the black male population has permanently lost the right to vote. We’re actually projecting in another 10 years the level of disenfranchisement will be as high as it’s been since prior to the passage of the Voting Rights Act. And there is this stunning silence.
I represent children. A lot of my clients are very young. The United States is the only country in the world where we sentence 13-year-old children to die in prison. We have life imprisonment without parole for kids in this country. And we’re actually doing some litigation. The only country in the world.
I represent people on death row. It’s interesting, this question of the death penalty. In many ways, we’ve been taught to think that the real question is, do people deserve to die for the crimes they’ve committed? And that’s a very sensible question. But there’s another way of thinking about where we are in our identity. The other way of thinking about it is not, do people deserve to die for the crimes they commit, but do we deserve to kill? I mean, it’s fascinating.
Death penalty in America is defined by error. For every nine people who have been executed, we’ve actually identified one innocent person who’s been exonerated and released from death row. A kind of astonishing error rate — one out of nine people innocent. I mean, it’s fascinating. In aviation, we would never let people fly on airplanes if for every nine planes that took off one would crash. But somehow we can insulate ourselves from this problem. It’s not our problem. It’s not our burden. It’s not our struggle.
I talk a lot about these issues. I talk about race and this question of whether we deserve to kill. And it’s interesting, when I teach my students about African-American history, I tell them about slavery. I tell them about terrorism, the era that began at the end of reconstruction that went on to World War II. We don’t really know very much about it. But for African-Americans in this country, that was an era defined by terror. In many communities, people had to worry about being lynched. They had to worry about being bombed. It was the threat of terror that shaped their lives. And these older people come up to me now and they say, “Mr. Stevenson, you give talks, you make speeches, you tell people to stop saying we’re dealing with terrorism for the first time in our nation’s history after 9/11.” They tell me to say, “No, tell them that we grew up with that.” And that era of terrorism, of course, was followed by segregation and decades of racial subordination and apartheid.