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Bryan Stevenson explains how it feels to grow up black amid Confederate monuments

“I think we have to increase our shame — and I don't think shame is a bad thing.”

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Bryan Stevenson is the founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative. He and his staff have won reversals, relief, or release for more than 115 wrongly convicted prisoners on death row. He’s the author of the powerful book Just Mercy and a winner of the MacArthur “Genius” prize. There are only a few people I’d say this about, but he’s a genuine American hero.

He was also a guest on my podcast recently; it was one of the more remarkable conversations I’ve been privileged to have.

Today I’m posting an excerpt of our discussion that’s particularly relevant amid the renewed debate over New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu trying to tear down Confederate monuments across his city. “These monuments celebrate a fictional, sanitized Confederacy, ignoring the death, ignoring the enslavement, ignoring the terror that it actually stood for,” Landrieu said.

In response, Mississippi state Rep. Karl Oliver wrote that those statues were “erected in the loving memory of our family and fellow Southern Americans,” and if Landrieu, and the lawmakers supporting his plan, want to “destroy historical monuments of OUR HISTORY, they should be LYNCHED!” Oliver later apologized for using the word lynched, but the fight is a reminder that America in 2017 is still deeply, even violently, divided over the legacy of slavery, and those who fought to defend it.

None of this surprises Stevenson. For years, his organization has been documenting and memorializing the actual lynchings that happened in America after slavery was abolished, and is now building a museum that will explore America’s brutal history on race with more honesty. He has thought deeply about the work America resistance to confronting the reality of our past, and the damage that that national act of forgetting — or, worse, of lying — has done to our present.

“We've created the counternarrative that says we have nothing about which we should be ashamed,” says Stevenson. “Our past is romantic and glorious. In my state of Alabama, Jefferson Davis's birthday is a state holiday. Confederate Memorial Day is a state holiday. We don't even have Martin Luther King Day in Alabama. We have Martin Luther King/Robert E. Lee Day. Our two largest high schools are Robert E. Lee High and Jefferson Davis High. They're both 90-some percent African-American. If we don't think it matters, then I think we're just kidding ourselves.”

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity. For our whole discussion — which includes much more on the death penalty, the drug war, the trauma communities go through when the innocent are imprisoned, and more — subscribe to The Ezra Klein Show wherever you get your podcasts, or stream it on SoundCloud.

Ezra Klein

You often say that “the opposite of poverty is not wealth. The opposite of poverty is justice.” What do you mean by that?

Bryan Stevenson

The wealth of the colonies was built on genocide of removing Native Americans from lands that they occupied. We kept their names, but we made them leave. We didn’t really acknowledge the injustice of that because we were persuaded that our economic security and our political development require the acquisition of these lands. It began this way of thinking about wealth that is disconnected from the oppression that is sometimes used to create that wealth. And that habit was reinforced through slavery.

We created great wealth in new territories in the south and the colonies by relying on enslaved people and the labor and the benefits that that created without any real thinking about how that wealth was sustained by abuse and oppression and inequality and injustice.

This idea has emerged in America that wealth is created by people with great talent and great ability. We value wealth. We respect wealth. We admire wealth. We disdain the poor. We blame the poor. We fault the poor for not achieving more economic security.

For me, it's important to redefine what it is we are dealing with when we deal with poverty, and that definition begins with recognizing that the opposite of poverty isn't wealth. The opposite of poverty is justice. If we actually had been just to those communities that we removed from the land, if we had been just to the formally enslaved, if we'd been just to immigrants who came and gave great wealth, we would actually be in a very different place when it comes to dealing with structural poverty.

Ezra Klein

But the idea of what represents justice is deeply contested. When you ask whether descendants of slave owners owe the communities they enslaved anything, you get a lot of disagreement. And there's huge resistance when the definition of justice would require the bearing of shame, much less reparations or some other kind of recompense.

Bryan Stevenson

There are narratives we have that we rely on to feel comfortable with the status quo. I mean, the people who came to this country as settlers didn't think of themselves as inhumane or barbaric or killers or mass murderers. They just didn't see the native people that they forced off their land as fully human. They said those people were savages. They used that narrative of racial difference to justify their comfort. We used that same narrative of racial difference to justify centuries of enslavement.

I actually think the great evil of American slavery wasn't involuntary servitude and forced labor. The true evil of American slavery was the narrative we created to justify it. They made up this ideology of white supremacy that cannot be reconciled with our Constitution, that cannot be reconciled with a commitment to fair and just treatment of all people. They made it up so they could feel comfortable while enslaving other people.

I really believe that narrative was the true evil, and it's the thing that didn't get abolished in 1865. If you read the 13th Amendment, it talks about ending involuntary servitude and forced labor, but it doesn't say anything about the narrative of racial difference, the ideology of white supremacy. Because of that, I've argued that slavery didn't end in 1865; it just evolved. We had decades of terrorism and violence and lynching. The North won the Civil War, but the South won the narrative war. There was no actual accountability. There was no reckoning. There was no acknowledgment that slavery was wrong at some fundamental level.

The failure of that transition means that even today, we're dealing with a narrative of racial difference. My work is aimed at trying to confront the burdens that people of color in this country face, which are heavily organized around presumption of dangerousness and guilt. It doesn't matter how educated you are, it doesn't matter how many degrees you have — you will go places in this country if you're a person of color and you will be presumed dangerous or guilty, and you're going to have to overcome that presumption.

As I get older, I can tell you that that weight starts to feel heavy. You start to feel overwhelmed by constantly having to navigate people's perceptions of you. Even though I'm a practicing lawyer, I still have to overcome that presumption frequently. I just don't think we're going to be free until we do something about these narratives, and that's why they’re the heart of it for me.

Ezra Klein

I want to talk a bit about the way the South won that narrative. When I drive into Virginia, I drive on highways named for Confederate leaders. I drive by buildings named for Confederate leaders. You’ve spoken about the difference between what the United States memorializes in its built environment and what other countries that have had a history of shameful violence and oppression memorialize in their built environments — what does that difference means for our collective consciousness?

Bryan Stevenson

What we do in the memorial spaces says a lot about who we are. The American South is littered with the iconography of the Confederacy. We are celebrating the architects and defenders of slavery. I don't think we understand what that means for our commitment to equality and fairness and justice.

If there were Hitler statutes all over Germany, I couldn't go there. I just couldn't. I would not able to make peace with the nation that was still comfortable with the era of German history where Nazis were responsible for the death of millions of Jewish people in concentration camps. But if you go to Berlin, the Holocaust memorial is extraordinary. You can barely go a hundred feet without seeing a monument that's been placed at the home of a Jewish family that was abducted.

In Rwanda, you are required to hear about the genocide. You can't go to Rwanda and spend a few days without someone talking to you about the damage and despair and the hurt and the pain created by that horror. In the genocide museum there, there are actually human skulls; that's how powerfully people want to express their grief. In South Africa, you are required to see the consequences of apartheid. There are places where camps and prisons have been turned into visiting sites where people can reflect on that legacy.

In this country, we don't talk about slavery. We don't talk about lynching. Worse, we've created the counternarrative that says we have nothing about which we should be ashamed. Our past is romantic and glorious. In my state of Alabama, Jefferson Davis's birthday is a state holiday. Confederate Memorial Day is a state holiday. We don't even have Martin Luther King Day in Alabama. We have Martin Luther King/Robert E. Lee Day.

Our two largest high schools are Robert E. Lee High and Jefferson Davis High. They're both 90-some percent African-American. If we don't think it matters, then I think we're just kidding ourselves. We do think it matters; that's why we have a 9/11 memorial. What we haven't done is understand what we are saying about who we are.

I think we have to increase our shame — and I don't think shame is a bad thing. I worked with people in jails and prisons, and most parole boards will make my clients say, “I am sorry,” before they can get parole. It's a requirement in many states that you have to show remorse, even if you have a perfect prison record, before they will let you out.

We require that because our sense of comfort, our sense of safety, is compromised if we don't think you appreciate the wrongfulness of your criminal act. In faith perspectives, to get to salvation — at least in the Christian tradition — you have to repent. There is no redemption without acknowledgement of sin. It’s not bad to repent. It's cleansing. It's necessary. It's ultimately liberating to acknowledge where we were and where we want to go. We haven't done that collectively.

Ezra Klein

I have several million follow-up questions to ask you here. I want to put a pin in shame because I want us to talk about shame in a couple of minutes. But I want to spend another moment on the built environment.

When I began preparing for this interview and hearing you talk about the way the South looks to you, I thought a lot about a trip I took to Germany a number of years ago. I was there to observe the political convention of the Social Democratic Party. In Germany, you cannot get a more anti-Hitler party than the Social Democrats. They were jailed for their anti-Nazi position. But I remember being there and being at the convention and realizing something was physiologically very wrong in me. I was very upset. I was very anxious. My heart was racing. It took me a minute to figure out what was going on. What was happening was that I was walking through halls hearing German on loudspeakers. For me, being Jewish, that had a very powerful physical effect on me.

What does it feel like to be an African-American man going to Robert E. Lee High School or walking by a Jefferson Davis statue? What is the lived experience of that? I think people can conceptualize why maybe it is abstractly unjust, but what role does it have in your daily life?

Bryan Stevenson

I grew up in the segregated South. My mom was one of these people who could answer any question in the world you asked her even though she didn't go to college, and no one in my family had gone to college. She really valued education. The only time I could remember my mom not asking answering my question is when we would drive pass the public school and I would ask my mom what the word public meant.

She didn't want me to understand that it meant I should be able to go to that school but instead we're going to this little shack called the colored school. There is an accumulated burden when you have to keep dealing with these things, when you are excluded and disfavored, when you are presumed dangerous and guilty.

I grew up in the ’60s and the polio vaccine was being disseminated widely. They wanted to eradicate polio, and they wanted all the children to get polio shots. I remember we didn't have a doctor in our county. They made everybody go to a building where they were supposed to get shots.

Of course, the white kids went to the front door and got their shot first, and the black kids had to wait outside the back door. Finally, when they got to the black kids, the nurses who were administering these shots were tired because it had just taken a long time and they'd run out of lollipops to give the kids to help temper the sting of that needle. By the time they got to the black kids, they were just rough. My sister was in front of me, and they grabbed my sister by the arm and they picked up the needle and they jabbed it into her arm, and she started screaming.

My mother was this amazing kind, loving person. She was a minister of music. She was so gentle. When they grabbed me by the arm, I started screaming for my mother. The nurse was about to put this needle in my arm. Then all of a sudden, I heard all of this glass breaking. My mother had gotten so angry and frustrated. She walked over to a wall. She picked up a tray of beakers and started throwing them against the wall. She was screaming, "It's not right. It's not fair. You made us wait out there; it's not right."

The doctor came in and said, "Call the police." I remember the black ministers coming forward and begging the doctor not to call the police. One of them actually fell to his knees and said, "Please don't call the police. We're sorry. We'll go and get her out of here." It was this performance at trying to preserve the medical care that these black children needed in the face of a protest about how unjustly and unfairly this process was working. When you have to act like that, when you have to live like that, when you have to do that over and over and over again, it weighs on you. It injures you.

Ezra Klein

It seems to me that our politics at the moment, and the rise of this president in particular, is built on a rejection of the idea that we should feel shame. It's built on a desire to not feel that shame — to in fact say that what has been given back is now more than enough, that the class that should be considered aggrieved, that should be considered disrespected, that should be considered in need of sympathy and empathy and understanding has actually changed to rural whites.

The project you're undertaking here feels to me— and I don't mean this in the way I think the term is often used — un-American. Un-American in the sense that America has been a society that is particularly resistant to shame, that believes in the value and forgetting things quickly and moving on from things fast. Do you see the project of trying to rehabilitate shame and its role in American life as something that is counter to our history and culture?

Bryan Stevenson

I agree that we don't have a political culture that rewards those who recognize they've made a mistake. We have a political culture where most of our politicians think that if they stand up and say, “I made a mistake, and I'm sorry," that makes them look weak.

In our personal lives, in our familial lives, we understand the importance of remorse and regret. You show me two people who've been in love for 50 years, I'll show you two people who've learn how to apologize to one another when they hurt each other, when they fall down. That's a stronger union. As I mentioned, in the criminal justice context, we insist on it. We insist on offenders expressing their shame before we trust them again.

I don't have an interest in humiliating people. In fact, one of the reasons why I think we struggle so much with confronting our failures is that we've created such a punitive society. We're so punitive in America that I think most people think if they say, “I'm wrong,” or, “I made a mistake,” that they're going to punished for that. I don't want to punish this country for these decades of abuses. I want to liberate us.

I actually believe in redemption. I believe in recovery. I believe in rehabilitation. That's why I advocate for people on death row and children who committed violent crimes and people who have broken the law. I believe in it for our country too. We cannot get to the reconciliation without the truth. We cannot get there if we don't acknowledge what it is we are struggling to recover from.

Ezra Klein

You made a point earlier in our conversation that I thought was very profound, where you said that because of our history, it doesn't take much for us to create distrust in this country. There are a lot of people we’re talking about whom members of their race took a lot, but it's not like they're doing so well now. There's nothing they feel they have to give. They live in communities rocked by opioids, that have too few jobs, that are in intense distress themselves. Some of these folks might look at that stronger union you talk about and say, “That is union in which I am not stronger.”

Bryan Stevenson

Yeah, I understand the appeal of that analysis. Only one in four Southerners owned enslaved people. The masses benefited from slavery, but they weren't the property owners. They weren't the slave owners. And yet they were the men and women who died on those battlefields. They paid the cost.

That's been true throughout the 20th century. We had a massive movement in this country to build workers' rights and to empower people and to create forces that could better protect workers. That was ultimately undermined, and it continues to be undermined by these politics of fear and anger, where we distract people with the race problem here or the immigration problem there.

That's not to say that there aren't real problems. What I'm saying is that, actually, if you don't give in to that, something better waits for you.

My state of Alabama resisted integration as much as anybody in America. We still do in a lot of ways. Our state constitution still prohibits black and white kids from going to school together. It's in the constitution now in 2017.

It was only in 2004 that the business community began to see how that language was undermining their efforts at recruiting European businesses and others to invest in Alabama. They persuaded the legislature to put on the ballot, in 2004, a referendum that would pull out that language. We can only change the state constitution through a statewide referendum. It was put on the ballot, but with our history of silence, nobody knew how to talk about it, so no one did. What happened in 2004 is that the majority of people in Alabama voted to keep that language in the state constitution. It was put back on the ballot in 2012, and a higher percentage of people voted to keep that language in the state constitution.

Now, the one thing that we are super proud of in the state of Alabama, the one thing that people are really excited by, that they absolutely get objective benefit from, is the success of our college football teams. Alabama and Auburn are some of the most successful college football programs in America, and people would go to those stadiums and they will cheer. The state will go into crisis when one of those teams loses. Neither one of those programs would be successful if we actually implemented the state constitution that we keep voting to ratify.

There is a disconnect. It does not make sense to vote against integration in public schools in 2012 and then go to Bryant Stadium and follow the Alabama football team, which is majority black. That disconnect is part of what I think is at the heart of this issue. It is about the narrative. It is about the cultural habits we have formed. We think we can hold on to segregation and then cheer our largely black football team at the same time and nobody is the worse for it. We're all the worse for it.

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