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All of our survival is tied to the survival of everyone: Bryan Stevenson at TED2012

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Photo: James Duncan Davidson

Bryan Stevenson spends most of his time in jails and prisons and on death row. He’s a lawyer, and the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative.

So he’s found it very energizing at TED, and wanted to start by pointing out that there is a distinct identity here. Things said here have a power that maybe they don’t elsewhere.

The point, he says, is that, “Identity is important.”

Identity in his life

He illustrates this with a story. He grew up in a matriachal house, where the undisputed matriarch was his grandmother: “She was the end of every argument in the family.” The daughter of people who were enslaved, she was tough but loving. She would often squeeze him so tight he could barely breathe.

When he was 8 or 9, he went into the living room, and his grandmother was staring at him. After 15 or 20 minutes, she took him aside and said, “We’re going to have a talk.” She said, “I want you to know I’ve been watching you. I think you’re special. I think you can do anything you want to do. Just promise me 3 things. 1) Love your mom. 2) Always do the right thing, even when it’s the hard thing. 3) Never drink alcohol.”

Later, when he was 14 or 15, his siblings offered him a beer, which made him uncomfortable, and he refused. His brother stared at him and said, “I hope you’re not still hung up on that conversation. Mama tells everyone they’re special.”

The point though, is this: He is 52, and he has never had a drop of alcohol. He says that, not because he thinks it is virtuous, but because there is an extraordinary power in identity. “We can say things to the world around us that they don’t yet believe, and get them to do things that they don’t think they can do.”

The criminal justice system

Stevenson works in the criminal justice system, and ours here in the United States is in a terrible state. In 1972, there were 300,000 people incarcerated. Today, there are 2.3 million. That’s the highest rate in the world. Mass incarceration is at an extraordinary level: 50-60% of young men of color are in jail, prison, or on parole. And that is fundamentally changing how we live.

Our justice system is distorted around race and also around poverty. It’s a system that “treats you much better if you’re rich and guilty than if you’re poor and innocent.” It feels like a problem that we should all want to solve, but the politics have made us feel that these are not our problems. We are extremely uncomfortable talking about race and poverty. For example, Alabama permanently disenfranchises convicted felons. As a result, 34% of African American men in Alabama have permanently lost the right to vote.

And yet, there is a stunning silence.

The United States is the only country that will sentence 13-year-old children to life imprisonment, to die in prison. And yet we largely don’t talk about it. The death penalty is, of course, a fantastically important issue, but the way we frame the question is important. One way of asking is, “Do people deserve to die for the crimes they’ve committed?” But another way is, “Do we deserve to kill?” For every nine people on death row executed, there is one found to be innocent and released. That is a statistic that would never be allowed in any other industry: Imagine if one out of every nine planes crashed?

We live in a country that embraced slavery, where after reconstruction and through Jim Crow a huge part of the population was subject to terrorism, to constant threats of being lynched and fire-bombed. But we don’t like to talk about it: “We don’t understand what it is to have done what we’ve done.” In South Africa, after apartheid ended, there was an extended process of truth and reconciliation, but here in America, neither at the end of slavery nor after the passage of the Civil Rights Act: nothing.

Stevenson gave a lecture in Germany and someone said to him, “We can never have the death penalty in Germany…. There is no way, with our history, we could engage in the systematic execution of human beings. It would be unconscionable.” Imagine if in Germany today there was a death row, and that Jewish people were systematically more likely to be convicted. And yet here in this country, in the states of the Old South, a defendant is 11 times more likely to get the death penalty if the victim is white, and 22 times more likely if the defendant is black.

Our future identity

Our whole identity is at risk. “If we don’t care about these things, then the positive things we believe are implicated too. Our hopeful, forward-looking realities are always shadowed by suffering, abuse, degradation, marginalization. Don’t always just be attentive to the bright and dazzling things but also to the dark and depressing things.”

We need to integrate the light and the dark. TED’s communities have to be engaged in this, he says: “There is no disconnect around technology and design that will allow us to be fully human until we also pay attention to suffering.”

This identity is a much more challenging identity.

Rosa Parks onced asked him to describe his work with the Equal Justice Initiative, which he did. She said, “Oh, that’s going to make you tired, tired, tired.” And then, “That’s why you’ve got to be brave, brave, brave.” The TED community, Stevenson exhorts, needs to be more courageous. Because who we are, and the extent to which we are human, depends on how human everyone around us is. “At the base is a basic human dignity that needs to be respected.”

Stevenson believes our country, along with others, has a fundamental problem with humanity: “In many parts of this country, the opposite of poverty is not wealth. In too many places the opposite of poverty is justice. We will ultimately not be judged by our technology and design, we will judge the character of our society by how they treat the poor. That is when we’ll understand truly profound things about who we are.”

Anger, and hope for the futre

In the middle of a case where a judge ruled that a 14-year-old was fit to stand trial as an adult, Stevenson wondered, “How can a judge turn a child into an adult? The judge must have magic powers.” So, late at night and very tired, he worked on a motion to ask that his 14-year-old poor black male client be tried as a wealthy privileged 70-year-old white male. He wrote a searing critique and went to bed. Woke up and realized: He’d hit Send.

Months later, he went to court, wondering what the judge would say. On the way there he met a janitor, who found out he was a lawyer. The janitor hugged him and said he was proud of him. Then Stevenson went into court, and the judge was furious. Inside the court, people were angry. “Angry that we were talking about race, and poverty, and inequality.”

The janitor had come in and sat behind him, and at recess a deputy demanded to know what a janitor was doing there. The janitor replied, “I came into this courtroom to tell this young man, ‘Keep your eyes on the prize, and hold on.'”

Today, Stevenson wants to tell us, “All of our survival is tied to the survival of everyone,” and we can not be fully evolved human beings until we care about justice for all and are truly willing to confront our difficult past.

But most of all, “I’ve come to tell you to keep your eyes on the prize, and hold on!”

TED is known as a place where standing ovations happen. But the response of the audience was beyond overwhelming. To a one they stood, and refused to sit down. An ovation that strong has simply never happend at TED before.

(And read what happened next.)