George Floyd was murdered on May 25, 2020 and the world hasn’t been the same since. The outpouring of support from the entire world and the widespread acknowledgments, albeit somewhat late, of the ongoing systemic racism affecting the black community in the United States, has been heartening to see. The number of policy changes that have been proposed and are being discussed gives me hope that perhaps our system will make an incremental or maybe bigger steps towards equal justice under the law. And hope is a powerful thing.
As most of you know, I’m not black, I’m white. Anything that I talk about is framed by the lens of my Midwestern upbringing and influenced by my marriage to a Jamaican-American black man and parenting two brown boys. I’m learning more and more every day; at the same time, I’m still learning to understand the underlying biases that I carry with me all the time. While I believe it is hard for those of us who are white to acknowledge (look up “white fragility”), I believe it is high time that the while people in this country acknowledge their own complicity in the systemic racism in our country.
To be clear, I believe that staying silent or saying “I don’t see color” is to be complicit in the systemic racism in this country. I believe that we must become anti-racist (to borrow a term from the excellent book, How to be an Anti Racist by Ibram Kendi.
I saw this meme recently and it really resonates with me … all the covert white supremacy concepts that have become socially acceptable are so very prevalent.
It’s hard to know, as a white person, the best place to find and obtain an education. I’ve seen a lot of frustrated activists posting about how exhausting it is to continue to explain racism to so many. There are quite a few lists and suggestions being shared, which I think is great. For me, reading books and watching movies honestly depicting the struggles of various groups of black people have been helpful.
One of the books that I read some time ago, very close to when it was published, was Just Mercy. When I saw that it was made into a movie, I watched it right away. In the current climate and because it was streaming free just about everywhere, I came back to the movie and watched it again. Outside of the truly stellar acting, Just Mercy deftly handles the various experiences of black men and women in the judicial system. Pictures truly are able to communicate much more than mere words and those pictures resonate right now in a different way.
As a lawyer, I would say that most people who go to law school talk about wanting to help people. The main character, played by Michael B. Jordan and based on a real activist, Bryan Stevenson, Esquire, put that idea into action. Stevenson graduated from Harvard Law School, obtained a grant to be able to represent people who could not afford legal services, and went to a location in the South near a prison with a death row filled with men whose cases may or may not have been prosecuted properly. He did this because early on in his legal education, he met a man on death row and realized that he was simply another human being, a human being deserving of dignity and fair treatment. Yet, because of his skin, the prisoner Stevenson met was treated very differently than his white counterparts.
One of the most infuriating scenes to me, as a lawyer, is when the main character, Bryan Stevenson, a newly minted lawyer, went to a prison for his scheduled appointments with the death row inmates, his new prospective clients. The guards insisted that they didn’t know him and before he could see his clients, he would be forced to strip naked. When I first watched that scene, I nearly came apart in fury. Frankly, if any guard had suggested I remove one article of clothing when I visited clients in jail or prison, I would have hit the roof and he/she would likely have lost his/her job. And yet, the lawyer in the film submitted to the indignity because while he was a free man, a man who was there to help, a man who was a professional, he was also black and those guards, they saw his skin color first.
I don’t know if there could have been a more powerful image to remind the viewer that despite his training, despite his Harvard education, despite the fact that he’d worked hard and succeeded; he was still just a black man to some and would never be anything but just a black man to those guards, those white men guarding a prison full of black men.
I think every person who starts out with an idealistic view of the world, whether that’s the criminal justice system or maybe the foster care system, has a point where the sheer enormity of the system hits home. It’s like an ocean or some other inexorable force that protects the status quo. One person or one organization fighting that tide is the quintessential David and Goliath conflict. And yet, one of the points made by the filmmakers and the author is that, one person and one organization CAN make a difference.
The movie demonstrates over and over that the champion of justice, of truth, played by Stevenson, did everything he could. He was right and demonstrated that he was over and over; he proved his case, over and over. Despite having the law on his side, the facts on his side, the procedural rules on his side, Stevenson and his client kept getting turned down. The system protected its own, over and over. His constituents, the God-fearing and law abiding citizens who happened to be black, were smacked back down over and over; their testimony disregarded, their color seen first, their guilt before any innocence. their inferiority over their humanity.
When did it change? When did the tide turn?
The tide only turned when the white prosecutor joined the black defense attorney and the black defendant in doing the right thing, in righting the wrong that had been done to the man who sat on death row needlessly for decades. It was only when the white people inside the system stood up to the system, that true justice was done.
At the end of the movie, Stevenson addresses Congress on the issue of the death penalty. I will leave you with his words:
“I came out of law school with grand ideas in my mind, about how to change the world. But Mr. McMillan made me realize that we can’t change the world with only ideas in our minds, we need conviction in our hearts. This man taught me how to stay hopefull because I now know that Hopelessness is the enemy of justice. Hope allows us to push forward even when the truth is distorted by people in power. Hope allows us stand up when they say sit down and to speak when they say be quiet.
Through this work, I’ve learned that each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done. That the opposite of poverty isn’t wealth, the opposite of poverty is justice. that Character of our nation is reflected by how we treat the rich and the privileged but by how we treat the poor, the disfavored, the condemned. Our system has taken more away from this innocent man that it has the power to give back. But I believe that if each of us could follow his lead, we could change the world for the better. If we could look at ourselves closely and honestly, I believe we would see that we all need justice, we all need mercy and, perhaps, we all need some measure of unmerited grace.”
In this topsy turvy world, I hope we can see conflicts through these eyes and offer each other hope and, maybe, some measure of unmerited grace.