Photo Credit: The Richmond Forum, Bryan Stevenson
My children didn’t grow up in the South. They are TCK’s (third culture kids) spending most of their childhood in other countries. They/we were minorities in those countries, so they understand some of what that means. A big difference is that we were still privileged minorities. We had the blue American passport. We could be forbidden entrance to those countries in the future but, once in, we would most probably always be allowed to peacefully live in and peacefully leave from those countries.
These children of ours have all now spent their college years and early adult years back in the US. Their understanding of racial differences has been impacted, having lived as “different” in other places.
Their parents, that would be Dave and me, taught them from a color-blind Biblical ideology. That’s how our parents taught us and I’m thankful for that kind of worldview. God loves everyone; we are to love everyone. Never based on what they look like, including skin color, an immutable characteristic. This is always a bent that moves people toward each other. We had been sheltered in life from the hardships and challenges of what it was for some to grow up black in the US. We didn’t know. We should have. Now we know more. What we may not know is what it is to love and experience love across differences (be it race or social status).
Our kids, since returning to the US, have found themselves in a culture of outrage, blaming, and unforgiveness. The push for academics and work environments to include Critical Race Theory and anti-racism is much more divisive than healing. Do not hear in anything I say below in support of such teaching.
Stevenson is an American attorney who founded and directs the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama. Stevenson works with some of the hardest cases in the court system. He advocates for those who did not receive fair and right judgments and find themselves in long prison terms, some even on Death Row. He also fights the situation where children are tried and imprisoned as adults…when it is not necessary for the sake of society, at the detriment of the child.
He talked and we listened. Stevenson, without judgment or contempt, talked about what it would take to move forward. He listed four actions we could all, no matter our race or privilege, do.
- Find ways to get proximate to people who are suffering. – Stevenson focuses intently on proximity. We can’t presume to know what it is like to be poor, marginalized, abused, or excluded. We have to come near. Find meaningful ways to do so. True innovation is only possible when we develop real understanding of those who feel the burn of racial, societal, or socioeconomic difference. Stevenson encourages us to “wrap your arms around the excluded and affirm their humanity and dignity”. We know we live in a culture where “if you’re rich and guilty, you’re treated better than if you’re poor and innocent”. This isn’t a victimizing statement. It is simply true. Do you disagree?
- Assess and change our narratives if they keep us indifferent to people. What is our belief, our story, about race in our country? Is there bias in that story? Does our story disbelieve racial injustice? Is our narrative meant to protect us from feeling any sense of responsibility, or even compassion, for today’s racial tensions? “A narrative of racial difference made us indifferent and comfortable with slavery. We had to create a false narrative to justify slavery. That narrative gave rise to white supremacy.” White supremacy is such an emotionally charged phrase in these days. Stevenson gives a space for us all to consider how that had impact in the past, and what lingers today in people’s narratives. What do we fear? What makes us angry? He asked the question, do any of us have “a presumption of dangerousness and guilt regarding blacks”? This may be what law enforcement officers wrestle with in their work in parts of our cities. Have we taken it on as part of our beliefs? To get to truth and justice, and that narrative, we must create space for truth-telling. Stevenson spoke of how other countries have very publicly dealt with their own unjust treatment of fellow countrymen. South Africa, Germany, Rwanda. In recent years, he and others established the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice. In hopes that America one day can heal in this painful part of our past.
- Stay hopeful. Stevenson talked about hope being our super-power. If we become calloused and cynical, we help no one. Least of all our children. For they will have someone’s narrative thrust on them – either through education systems or news media. Better for us to confront what is true about racial bias by listening and learning from those most affected. Listening and learning from each other, then incorporating that into our own narrative, life, and work. [I have a writer friend, an intelligent articulate young man, wise beyond his years, who happens to be black and who strongly insists the listening and learning must be in both directions. He actually gives me the most hope for what is possible in this American situation.]
- Be willing to do what is uncomfortable and inconvenient. “There are no shortcuts…Truth-telling is the first priority. Healing is a possibility.” We can move forward with the smallest of steps that will grow larger as we persevere. One option is to get involved with the Equal Justice Initiative, from wherever we are. We can find out what agencies in our towns are working toward healthy communities and learn from them. Plugging in where we can. Embrace Communities is one of those agencies in our state. Also, as my parents taught me, we can be kind, lean in, vote for what’s right, and serve others…all others, for we all need each other.
Stevenson said so much more than I covered here. To hear this brilliant, thoughtful, hopeful black man speak on this painful and divisive issue was thrilling and captivating for us. If you’ve ever had one of those awakening experiences [not “woke” – that word has darkened the conversation politically for many of us] – like a black friend telling how he has been pulled over by the police on multiple occasions, having done nothing wrong; or reading Stevenson’s book Just Mercy (or seeing the film of the same name), or visiting someone desperately poor, or watching the documentary 13th, or what? You say…what are we allowing to gentle and mature our own narratives, reckoning with “the implicit and unconscious biases” of our lives?
I’d like to close with some of Bryan Stevenson’s remarks from an interview almost a decade ago. His honoring wisdom was not an outcome of the terrible summer of 2020. He’s been beating this drum for all his adult life. We are wise to listen and learn.
What is justice? I think justice is a constant struggle. That’s as good a definition as I can come up with. I think that injustice is evident when people are not struggling to protect the norms, the values, the goals, the aspirations of the entire community — for fairness, equality and balance. – Bryan Stevenson
When I talk about race and poverty, I’m not talking about doing things for African-Americans. I’m talking about doing things for the entire community. – Bryan Stevenson
“Do Some Uncomfortable and Inconvenient Things”: A Civil Rights Champion’s Call to Action for CEOs – Matthew Heimer (watch the video at start of the article)
YouTube Video – 13th – full-length documentary – Netflix [“The Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution abolished slavery and involuntary servitude, except as punishment for a crime”. – Wikipedia
Photo Credit: Bryan Stevenson, Just Mercy, Pinterest