Bryan Stevenson, the founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative and the author of Just Mercy, spoke to the Resnick Aspen Action Forum about creating racial justice.
If we want justice, we’ve got to get closer to places where injustice prevails. When you get proximate, you understand things you cannot understand from a distance. Yet many of us have been taught, if there is a part of our community with abuse, drug addiction, neglect, and despair, stay far away.
We are surrounded by the consequences of a history of racial inequality. The great evil of American slavery was not involuntary servitude and forced labor. It was the narrative of racial difference we created to legitimate the ideology of white supremacy that we made up to feel more comfortable with enslavement. We said black people are different than white people. We can’t get free until we change that narrative.
For decades, we did damage to people in this country. And we haven’t done the things you’re supposed to do to recover. You cannot spend time in South Africa without having to confront the legacy of apartheid. In Rwanda, you are required to understand the legacy of the genocide. The Germans actually want you to go Auschwitz and reflect soberly on the legacy of the Holocaust. In America, we do the opposite: You start talking about racial justice; people start looking for the exits.
But we have to stay hopeful. You cannot create justice unless you are hopeful about what you can do. Hopelessness is the enemy of justice. We also have to be willing to do uncomfortable things. We will not create justice until we’re willing to position ourselves in uncomfortable places and be witnesses.
If you get proximate, change narratives, stay hopeful, and do uncomfortable things, it will break you. But in brokenness, you will understand compassion. It is the broken who understand the way justice really needs to work.