Every year, my university runs an extracurricular program for its incoming freshmen called On the Same Page that aims to give the entire class (all 5,500 matriculants) a common theme for their academic year, or at least something to talk about during passing period. I know about this program because several years ago, the On the Same Page project was run through Linguistics, and all the incoming freshmen recorded a sample of their voices for a neat little Berkeley corpus. (I then used this corpus for my own research!)
This year, all participants were given a copy of Bryan Stevenson’s bestseller book Just Mercy, in which he recounts many stories from his long career as a lawyer and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative. Stevenson’s passion is defending people on death row, in particular those who are innocent and/or did not receive a fair trial for various reasons (usually racism).
In addition to being given the book and opportunities to discuss it in seminars and workshops, students were also treated to a lecture from Stevenson himself, which was held last Wednesday at Zellerbach Hall. The event was free to the rest of the campus community and the public, as well, so I made sure to go. I had heard of Stevenson’s book from my friend Sharon and put it on my long summer reading list, but never got around to it. Eventually, I had decided that I would forego reading the book and just attend the lecture.
But after the lecture, I realized that I needed to get my hands on a copy and read it cover to cover.
How did the author catapult his book from the bottom of a dog pile of recommendations to the top in just sixty minutes? It was a very, very good message. Stevenson wasted no time trying to convince his audience of the sobering reality: America is a carceral state. Along with the stunning statistics showing that there are millions more people in prison today than there were a few decades ago — an increase that does not square with a rise in population or criminal activity — there is a severe imparity in the way people are treated in courts and prisons, especially if they are people of color, disabled persons, or women.
So with that as a given, what can we — as university freshmen, kids who plan to major in biology or linguistics, ordinary people who won’t or can’t devote careers to fighting for the rights of the oppressed — contribute and do to help these fellow citizens in need?
Stevenson impressed me with his concise and well-defended talking points — unsurprising, as he is a lawyer — and really moved the audience with heartbreaking stories. First of all, he encouraged us all to “be proximal”: to get close to where the pain is rather than choosing the “flight” response or avoiding the humans we really need to be helping. It’s true; most people I know, myself included, try to avert their eyes when they walk by a panhandler on the street. We obediently stay away from the “ghetto” parts of Oakland and are glad that our prisons are located far away from the residential neighborhoods. But Stevenson argues that we need to humanize our civil issues by going face-to-face with actual people. It’s easy to dismiss a hardened criminal who’s getting his just deserts when he’s just an idea, but hard to disengage from compassion if you visit him in prison and listen to him talk about his life outside of the cell.
Another point Stevenson made was to “change the narrative”. This one is so important. We have a discourse at the national level that casts people of color, especially Black and Latino males, as dangerous, criminal, lazy, unpatriotic drains on our welfare system. Our candidates for the highest elected office have referred to Mexican immigrants as rapists and Black youth as “superpredators”, and these narratives can too easily become entrenched in the common consciousness. Especially since they come from White people in power. And no matter how much they may recant or apologize, the damage has been done. Generations of Americans have grown up (indeed, are growing up) with one-sided portrayals of entire races from cultural memes and mass media; this has led directly to racist policing and extreme manifestations of White privilege within the judicial system. The only way to reverse this is to counter the racist narratives with accurate, positive ones: #BlackLivesMatter, #BlackGirlMagic, things of that sort, but hopefully more substantial than a hashtag.
And the last takeaway that I recall was for us to “stay hopeful”. Without critiquing the system, nothing will change; but it’s too easy for your average woke person to drown in the recognition of the sheer amount of moral failure that has resulted in said system. And if they give up, or resort to only voicing frustrations and stop actually fighting for reform, then they are no longer a part of the solution. Even the most racist American can change their tune — and Stevenson told quite a good anecdote to illustrate this — so the point is never to lose hope. Be an activist who always seeks to liberate, never to punish or condemn.
You know, I’d like to think that I don’t need to convince anybody about the existence and persistence of racial inequality in our country, but I’ve encountered lots of people, even here in liberal Berkeley, who have never thought to challenge the narratives that are handed down to them: e.g. Black communities have drug problems; Native Americans’ abysmal social welfare is their own doing and not the consequence of historical genocide; crime is better addressed through punishment than preventative measures; drugs are a crime issue and not a public health issue. I don’t really know what to tell these people, and as I was remarking to my friend Eun Sun before church this morning, it’s very difficult for me not to simply throw my hands up and say, “Why can’t you just see things the way I do?!” It’s not like I, too, was not socialized to accept the false narratives; it’s just that somewhere along the way I was given a different lens, a clearer one in my opinion, and now can’t fathom going back to use the old one.
But Eun Sun reminded me that one of the most compelling things about living in community — in particular a religious community like the church we both belong to — is that no matter the issue or what disagreements there are about it, we walk through it together. She shares some of my sentiments about wanting to see a change of heart in this country’s people of faith, especially professing evangelicals who talk all the talk about Biblical models of restorative justice but rarely walk that Christ-centered walk. But Eun Sun is more patient than I, and she is also in charge of leading our fellowship toward a vision of appropriate local outreach, so she stressed to me not just the urgency of putting our faith into action but also the necessity of investing in our community, of teaching and learning together about why it should matter to us in the first place… and to take all the time that is needed to do so.
Yes, if the American church does not pursue justice within our own borders, we will at best be missing out on vast opportunities to see God in action, and at worst be ignoring a direct commandment: “to act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8) and sullying a celestial reputation: “the Lord works righteousness and justice for all the oppressed” (Psalm 103:6).
And that said, I think the model of teaching and learning together before running off to a protest or “getting our hands dirty” in other productive ways has quite a lot of merit, no matter one’s religious affiliation or lack thereof. I could stand to be less frustrated at the American church (or at least, voice my frustrations less), in favor of leading teach-ins and collecting resources for my sleeping brothers and sisters to help them awaken. We profess to have faith, like a fire kindled within. We need to learn to use that flame to see where to go, not just warm our hands as we sit in the dirt, inert.
I remember that Bryan Stevenson was given an immediate and long-lasting standing ovation as soon as he concluded his lecture. Everyone in the audience, no matter their race or creed, leapt to their feet. Now where do we go from here? My hope is that my Bay Area community and my fellow people of faith will keep standing… then start walking, and make it as far down this straight and narrow road as we can.
Word of the Day: manumission, from Latin manu mittere (“release from the hand/power of a master”) via Old French, is a synonym for liberation, the freeing of a slave. See also disenthralment, emancipation, affranchisement (all such lovely words!). Today, on the fifteenth anniversary of 9/11, we hear the choruses of freedom for America, freedom from terror and oppression. We’ll always remember what happened to us on this day, but we cannot at the same time forget that we are not all liberated. Not yet. We are not one of us free until all of us are.