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 future
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.)
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.” (Laughter) 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.” (Laughter) I said, “Well, what are you talking about?” He said, “Oh, Mama tells all the grandkids that they’re special.” (Laughter) 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. (Applause) 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 seven 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 percent 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 percent 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.
And yet, we have in this country this dynamic where we really don’t like to talk about our problems. We don’t like to talk about our history. And because of that, we really haven’t understood what it’s meant to do the things we’ve done historically. We’re constantly running into each other. We’re constantly creating tensions and conflicts. We have a hard time talking about race, and I believe it’s because we are unwilling to commit ourselves to a process of truth and reconciliation. In South Africa, people understood that we couldn’t overcome apartheid without a commitment to truth and reconciliation. In Rwanda, even after the genocide, there was this commitment, but in this country we haven’t done that.
I was giving some lectures in Germany about the death penalty. It was fascinating because one of the scholars stood up after the presentation and said, “Well you know it’s deeply troubling to hear what you’re talking about.” He said, “We don’t have the death penalty in Germany. And of course, we can never have the death penalty in Germany.” And the room got very quiet, and this woman said, “There’s no way, with our history, we could ever engage in the systematic killing of human beings. It would be unconscionable for us to, in an intentional and deliberate way, set about executing people.” And I thought about that. What would it feel like to be living in a world where the nation state of Germany was executing people, especially if they were disproportionately Jewish? I couldn’t bear it. It would be unconscionable.
And yet, in this country, in the states of the Old South, we execute people — where you’re 11 times more likely to get the death penalty if the victim is white than if the victim is black, 22 times more likely to get it if the defendant is black and the victim is white — in the very states where there are buried in the ground the bodies of people who were lynched. And yet, there is this disconnect.
Well I believe that our identity is at risk. That when we actually don’t care about these difficult things, the positive and wonderful things are nonetheless implicated. We love innovation. We love technology. We love creativity. We love entertainment. But ultimately, those realities are shadowed by suffering, abuse, degradation, marginalization. And for me, it becomes necessary to integrate the two. Because ultimately we are talking about a need to be more hopeful, more committed, more dedicated to the basic challenges of living in a complex world. And for me that means spending time thinking and talking about the poor, the disadvantaged, those who will never get to TED. But thinking about them in a way that is integrated in our own lives.
You know ultimately, we all have to believe things we haven’t seen. We do. As rational as we are, as committed to intellect as we are. Innovation, creativity, development comes not from the ideas in our mind alone. They come from the ideas in our mind that are also fueled by some conviction in our heart. And it’s that mind-heart connection that I believe compels us to not just be attentive to all the bright and dazzly things, but also the dark and difficult things. Vaclav Havel, the great Czech leader, talked about this. He said, “When we were in Eastern Europe and dealing with oppression, we wanted all kinds of things, but mostly what we needed was hope, an orientation of the spirit, a willingness to sometimes be in hopeless places and be a witness.”
Well that orientation of the spirit is very much at the core of what I believe even TED communities have to be engaged in. There is no disconnect around technology and design that will allow us to be fully human until we pay attention to suffering, to poverty, to exclusion, to unfairness, to injustice. Now I will warn you that this kind of identity is a much more challenging identity than ones that don’t pay attention to this. It will get to you.
I had the great privilege, when I was a young lawyer, of meeting Rosa Parks. And Ms. Parks used to come back to Montgomery every now and then, and she would get together with two of her dearest friends, these older women, Johnnie Carr who was the organizer of the Montgomery bus boycott — amazing African American woman — and Virginia Durr, a white woman, whose husband, Clifford Durr, represented Dr. King. And these women would get together and just talk.
And every now and then Ms. Carr would call me, and she’d say, “Bryan, Ms. Parks is coming to town. We’re going to get together and talk. Do you want to come over and listen?” And I’d say, “Yes, Ma’am, I do.” And she’d say, “Well what are you going to do when you get here?” I said, “I’m going to listen.” And I’d go over there and I would, I would just listen. It would be so energizing and so empowering.
And one time I was over there listening to these women talk, and after a couple of hours Ms. Parks turned to me and she said, “Now Bryan, tell me what the Equal Justice Initiative is. Tell me what you’re trying to do.” And I began giving her my rap. I said, “Well we’re trying to challenge injustice. We’re trying to help people who have been wrongly convicted. We’re trying to confront bias and discrimination in the administration of criminal justice. We’re trying to end life without parole sentences for children. We’re trying to do something about the death penalty. We’re trying to reduce the prison population. We’re trying to end mass incarceration.”
I gave her my whole rap, and when I finished she looked at me and she said, “Mmm mmm mmm.” She said, “That’s going to make you tired, tired, tired.” (Laughter) And that’s when Ms. Carr leaned forward, she put her finger in my face, she said, “That’s why you’ve got to be brave, brave, brave.”
And I actually believe that the TED community needs to be more courageous. We need to find ways to embrace these challenges, these problems, the suffering. Because ultimately, our humanity depends on everyone’s humanity. I’ve learned very simple things doing the work that I do. It’s just taught me very simple things. I’ve come to understand and to believe that each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done. I believe that for every person on the planet. I think if somebody tells a lie, they’re not just a liar. I think if somebody takes something that doesn’t belong to them, they’re not just a thief. I think even if you kill someone, you’re not just a killer. And because of that there’s this basic human dignity that must be respected by law. I also believe that in many parts of this country, and certainly in many parts of this globe, that the opposite of poverty is not wealth. I don’t believe that. I actually think, in too many places, the opposite of poverty is justice.
And finally, I believe that, despite the fact that it is so dramatic and so beautiful and so inspiring and so stimulating, we will ultimately not be judged by our technology, we won’t be judged by our design, we won’t be judged by our intellect and reason. Ultimately, you judge the character of a society, not by how they treat their rich and the powerful and the privileged, but by how they treat the poor, the condemned, the incarcerated. Because it’s in that nexus that we actually begin to understand truly profound things about who we are.
I sometimes get out of balance. I’ll end with this story. I sometimes push too hard. I do get tired, as we all do. Sometimes those ideas get ahead of our thinking in ways that are important. And I’ve been representing these kids who have been sentenced to do these very harsh sentences. And I go to the jail and I see my client who’s 13 and 14, and he’s been certified to stand trial as an adult. I start thinking, well, how did that happen? How can a judge turn you into something that you’re not? And the judge has certified him as an adult, but I see this kid.
And I was up too late one night and I starting thinking, well gosh, if the judge can turn you into something that you’re not, the judge must have magic power. Yeah, Bryan, the judge has some magic power. You should ask for some of that. And because I was up too late, wasn’t thinking real straight, I started working on a motion. And I had a client who was 14 years old, a young, poor black kid. And I started working on this motion, and the head of the motion was: “Motion to try my poor, 14-year-old black male client like a privileged, white 75-year-old corporate executive.”
And I put in my motion that there was prosecutorial misconduct and police misconduct and judicial misconduct. There was a crazy line in there about how there’s no conduct in this county, it’s all misconduct. And the next morning, I woke up and I thought, now did I dream that crazy motion, or did I actually write it? And to my horror, not only had I written it, but I had sent it to court.
A couple months went by, and I had just forgotten all about it. And I finally decided, oh gosh, I’ve got to go to the court and do this crazy case. And I got into my car and I was feeling really overwhelmed — overwhelmed. And I got in my car and I went to this courthouse. And I was thinking, this is going to be so difficult, so painful. And I finally got out of the car and I started walking up to the courthouse.
And as I was walking up the steps of this courthouse, there was an older black man who was the janitor in this courthouse. When this man saw me, he came over to me and he said, “Who are you?” I said, “I’m a lawyer.” He said, “You’re a lawyer?” I said, “Yes, sir.” And this man came over to me and he hugged me. And he whispered in my ear. He said, “I’m so proud of you.” And I have to tell you, it was energizing. It connected deeply with something in me about identity, about the capacity of every person to contribute to a community, to a perspective that is hopeful.
Well I went into the courtroom. And as soon as I walked inside, the judge saw me coming in. He said, “Mr. Stevenson, did you write this crazy motion?” I said, “Yes, sir. I did.” And we started arguing. And people started coming in because they were just outraged. I had written these crazy things. And police officers were coming in and assistant prosecuters and clerk workers. And before I knew it, the courtroom was filled with people angry that we were talking about race, that we were talking about poverty, that we were talking about inequality.
And out of the corner of my eye, I could see this janitor pacing back and forth. And he kept looking through the window, and he could hear all of this holler. He kept pacing back and forth. And finally, this older black man with this very worried look on his face came into the courtroom and sat down behind me, almost at counsel table. About 10 minutes later the judge said we would take a break. And during the break there was a deputy sheriff who was offended that the janitor had come into court. And this deputy jumped up and he ran over to this older black man. He said, “Jimmy, what are you doing in this courtroom?” And this older black man stood up and he looked at that deputy and he looked at me and he said, “I came into this courtroom to tell this young man, keep your eyes on the prize, hold on.”
I’ve come to TED because I believe that many of you understand that the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice. That we cannot be full evolved human beings until we care about human rights and basic dignity. That all of our survival is tied to the survival of everyone. That our visions of technology and design and entertainment and creativity have to be married with visions of humanity, compassion and justice. And more than anything, for those of you who share that, I’ve simply come to tell you to keep your eyes on the prize, hold on.
Thank you very much.
Chris Anderson: So you heard and saw an obvious desire by this audience, this community, to help you on your way and to do something on this issue. Other than writing a check, what could we do?
BS: Well there are opportunities all around us. If you live in the state of California, for example, there’s a referendum coming up this spring where actually there’s going to be an effort to redirect some of the money we spend on the politics of punishment. For example, here in California we’re going to spend one billion dollars on the death penalty in the next five years — one billion dollars. And yet, 46 percent of all homicide cases don’t result in arrest. 56 percent of all rape cases don’t result. So there’s an opportunity to change that. And this referendum would propose having those dollars go to law enforcement and safety. And I think that opportunity exists all around us.
CA: There’s been this huge decline in crime in America over the last three decades. And part of the narrative of that is sometimes that it’s about increased incarceration rates. What would you say to someone who believed that?
BS: Well actually the violent crime rate has remained relatively stable. The great increase in mass incarceration in this country wasn’t really in violent crime categories. It was this misguided war on drugs. That’s where the dramatic increases have come in our prison population. And we got carried away with the rhetoric of punishment. And so we have three strikes laws that put people in prison forever for stealing a bicycle, for low-level property crimes, rather than making them give those resources back to the people who they victimized. I believe we need to do more to help people who are victimized by crime, not do less. And I think our current punishment philosophy does nothing for no one. And I think that’s the orientation that we have to change.
CA: Bryan, you’ve struck a massive chord here. You’re an inspiring person. Thank you so much for coming to TED. Thank you.