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Bryan Stevenson on how America can heal

A conversation about truth and reconciliation in the US.

Bryan Stevenson stands in front of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, the first memorial dedicated to those terrorized by lynching.
Rog and Bee Walker/Equal Justice Initiative

What would it take for America to heal? To be the country it claims to be?

This is the question that animates Bryan Stevenson’s career. Stevenson is the founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, a clinical professor at the New York University School of Law, a MacArthur “genius,” and the author of the remarkable book Just Mercy — which was recently turned into a feature film where Stevenson was played by Michael B. Jordan.

I admire Stevenson tremendously. He has lived a life dedicated to justice — justice for individuals (some of whom he has rescued from death row) and justice for the society he lives in. He’s one of the fairly few people I’ve found with a vision for how America could find justice on the far shore of its own history. That vision is particularly needed now and so I asked him to return to The Ezra Klein Show to share it. To my delight, he agreed.

This conversation is about truth and reconciliation in America — and about whether truth would actually lead to reconciliation in America. It’s about what the process of reckoning with our past sins and present wounds would look and feel and sound like. It’s about what we can learn from countries like Germany and South Africa, that have walked further down this path than we have. And it’s about the country and community that could lie on the other side of that confrontation.

An edited transcript from our conversation follows. The full conversation can be heard on The Ezra Klein Show.

Ezra Klein

What is a healthy relationship for society to have with its own history?

Bryan Stevenson

Knowing the actual history. If you don’t know your history, you can’t really begin to understand what your obligations are, what your responsibilities are, what you should fear, what you should celebrate, what’s honorable and what’s not honorable.

The big problem we have in the United States is that we don’t actually know our history. We don’t know about the centuries of racial injustice. We don’t know about the native genocide. You say “native genocide” and people have no idea what you’re talking about. They think you’re saying something radical.

Once you know that history, you begin to think differently about who we are. We got comfortable with creating a Constitution that talks about equality and justice for all, but didn’t apply to millions of Indigenous people who were on this land. And so until you understand that history, you can’t begin thinking about, well, what are your responsibilities now? What are your obligations now? What would it take to recover from that kind of violence, that kind of destruction that we did to millions of Indigenous people?

And, of course, that failure to acknowledge that history is what makes us vulnerable to the two-and-a-half centuries of slavery that follow. We’ve invested a lot of time in creating false narratives about slavery, about enslavers, about the South, about the North, about emancipation, about abolitionists — many of whom didn’t believe in slavery but also didn’t believe in racial equality. And the legacy of that is very different than the legacy we’ve been taught.

So for me, it begins with honesty. If you’ve done something wrong to someone else and you genuinely don’t know what you’ve done wrong, you’re not going to be able to fully reconcile with that person. You’re not going to be able to adequately apologize. You’re not going to be able to say the things you need to say to create a path toward recovery. You have to know what you did. And once you understand what you did, you can then begin to calibrate all the things that have to happen for you to try to make peace. For you to recover. To create fellowship again.

We have committed ourselves in this country to silence about our history, to ignorance about our history, to denying our history. And that’s the first part of this relationship that has to be repaired. We’ve got to be willing now to talk honestly about who we are and how we got here.

Ezra Klein

A word you used a few times there was “we.” But when we begin having this conversation about our history, the shared national identity that gets taken for granted in other contexts begins to dissolve very fast. After 9/11, or after winning World War II or during an election, people talk about Americans as a “we” no matter when their ancestors got here. They tend to associate themselves with its founding, its lineages, its victories.

But then you get into its misdeeds, its injustices, its sins, and the idea there is a “we” here becomes very difficult for people. People say things like,Well, I wasn’t here. I didn’t do any of that. My grandparents came here from Ireland in 1942.”

How do you deal with the pronouns in this conversation? Who is talking? Who is listening? Who owes what to whom?

Bryan Stevenson

I think you’re exactly right. There is a tendency when it comes to mistakes, misconduct, abuse, to disassociate yourself from those things while running to embrace every aspect of achievement. “We won the most medals at the United States Olympics.” Well, you didn’t win any medals, but we do invoke ownership.

So I believe it’s important for anyone who identifies as an American, as a citizen of this country, to not simply embrace all the things about American history that we think are glorious and wonderful, but to also acknowledge and accept the things about our history that are tragic and devastating.

What’s interesting for me, when I look at the experience of African Americans in particular, Black people have been so committed to this country, they’ve been so committed to the identity of an America that is committed to equality and justice.

In the 250 years of enslavement in which Black people endured being kidnapped, put in chains, brutalized, mistreated, abused, raped — there was daily humiliation and degradation, the violence of slavery. That kind of abuse and mistreatment finally ends in 1865 after the Civil War, after the ratification of the 13th Amendment. And instead of seeking revenge or retribution or violence against those who had enslaved them, emancipated Black people said, We’re going to make peace here. We’re going to make community here. We’re going to commit to education. We’re going to commit to voting. We’re going to become ideal American citizens.

When you think about all of the brutality and violence and abuse that Black people suffered and they still were willing to live in harmony with those who had abused them, it says something remarkable about the power of “we.” They believed in an America and they got no credit for that. What they got instead was more abuse. There were over 2,000 lynchings between 1865 and 1877. One of the most violent periods in American history.

And yet, for 100 years, they still believed enough in the American idea that they would continue finding ways to contribute. You saw those contributions in World War I, World War II, and the Korean War. And then when they got back from war, they’d be targeted for violence by white supremacists who feared their American military service might cause them to believe that they were an equal. What Dr. King and Rosa Parks and others do in the 1950s and ’60s is so rooted in a commitment to the American identity.

To me, the model that African Americans have established with this country is that even when things are not good we invoke this idea of an American identity. It means that we absolutely have to be willing to acknowledge the things that are harmful, that are injurious in the American South. The entire American South benefited from the institution of slavery — the entire United States did. The rail lines that allowed those companies in the North to become industrialists, the industries that gave rise to all of that growth during the first half of the 20th century — all of it had its roots in this forced labor stolen from Black bodies.

We have to understand that to really be honest. There is no way of saying “they did that.” If we’re going to claim American citizenship and American identity, there has to be a willingness to say “we” just like there’s that willingness to say “we” when an American does something great.

Ezra Klein

In an interview you did at MOMA in 2015, you had this line that I haven’t been able to stop thinking about since: “We need to engage everyone in a meaningful conversation about what it would take to cleanse ourselves of the legacy of slavery.”

When I first heard that I thought it was obvious. And then I realized that almost every word in that sentence could take a lifetime to unpack. We began with the first word in that sentence: “we.” But let me go to one of the next pieces of it, which is “engage everyone.”

The conversations we have in this country, to the extent we have them at all, are polarized and fractured. So how do we engage everyone in a conversation about America’s foundational sins?

Bryan Stevenson

I think it begins with an understanding of what actually happened. The true evil of American slavery wasn’t involuntary servitude or the forced labor. It wasn’t the bondage. The real evil of slavery was the ideology that we created — that Black people are less deserving, less worthy, less human, less evolved.

If you understand that’s the true problem of slavery, then it becomes easier to understand how we don’t really end slavery with the passage of the 13th Amendment. In 1865, my view is that slavery doesn’t end — it just evolves. Because we never deal with the fundamental character that made enslavement so horrific, which is this ideology of white supremacy.

Once you understand that, then you can continue to see that legacy play out in the disenfranchisement and exclusion of Black people from jobs in the North and West in the 1950s. When banks don’t give Black people mortgage loans, they don’t help veterans who are Black move into the middle class. You begin to see it in the ’70s and ’80s when we declared this war on drugs and we target Black communities. You see it in the ways in which police violence manifests itself.

And once you understand that, you begin to understand that you are implicated in this story. You are implicated in this moment that we live in where the smog created by our history of racial injustice is still in the air and we’re still breathing it in and it’s corrupting our world view, just like it corrupted the world view of people before us. So it does begin with that understanding.

Ezra Klein

What does that engagement actually look like? What is the structure in which people are pulled into this conversation so they can get to that understanding?

Bryan Stevenson

I think it’s local. It’s intimate. It’s familial, it’s communal. It’s statewide. It’s nationwide. I think every entity, every institution has to commit to this process of truth-telling.

I think it’s really important that people understand that if you’re genuinely engaged and recovering from human rights abuses, you have to commit to truth-telling first. You can’t jump to reconciliation. You can’t jump to reparation or restoration until you tell the truth. Until you know the nature of the injuries, you can’t actually speak to the kind of remedies that are going to be necessary.

For me, that’s very immediate. I believe colleges and universities need to have their own truth-telling process to document the ways in which they contributed to the history of racial inequality, the history of white supremacy. If you were a college and university functioning in the first half of the 20th century, there are things you should acknowledge you did to sustain racial inequality. Corporations, banks, insurance companies all played a critical role in allowing racial injustice and white supremacy to prevail throughout the 20th century.

You don’t have to go outside of your own institutions. You can begin with your own truth-telling. You can tell your own story about the ways in which you are complicit. For me, that’s got to be the way it works.

There are places in the American South that have to address things that were unique to this region. We didn’t allow Black people to vote in many states in the American South for a century. It took blood and violence and federal troops and congressional acts just to give people their right to vote. And there was no shame about denying people their right to vote.

The North wins the Civil War and the South wins the narrative war because not only do they not apologize, they actually double down and say what we did by enslaving people and forming this Confederacy was noble and glorious and honorable. And when that’s your mindset, you don’t get to the right place. That didn’t happen when lynching becomes less prominent in the 1950s. It didn’t happen in the 1960s after the passage of the civil rights laws. It hasn’t happened yet.

So I want to say to the state of Alabama: Will you reckon with your history of enslavement, your history of lynching, your history of segregation? What are you going to say? What are you going to be reckoned with?

In 1965, we should have said: If you’re really sorry about all of this abuse and disenfranchisement, if you really want to do something to recover from a century of disenfranchisement, the state of Alabama ought to say, “We’re going to register every Black person when they turn 18. We no longer want the burden to be on Black people who have been discouraged and abused and turned away and humiliated and threatened for trying to vote. We’re going to take that burden. We’re going to register every Black person.”

We’re going to say to the University of Alabama, University of Georgia, and some of these schools that were adamantly opposed to integration, if those universities really want to reckon, then maybe they’re going to say,We don’t think Black people who are residents of the state should have to pay tuition. We think we should take that on as a way of recovering, responding to this history of exclusion.”

Banks could be thinking very differently about what they owe African Americans in this country when they reckon with the history of exclusion. The military could be thinking about what it owes to Black veterans when it allowed banks and American institutions to turn veterans away because of the color of their skin. Companies have that same responsibility. The government has that same responsibility.

But for me, it begins with the truth-telling, because when you start telling the truth, you recognize things. For me, the question is: What is the truth of our institution as it relates to the history of racial inequality? It’s very, very concrete. How do we frame an investigation into the truth of our history? What is the truth of our history? What is our institutions’ role? What is our community’s role in allowing this landscape to be created that is so shattered by racial injustice and white supremacy?

Ezra Klein

Barbara Lee recently proposed a Truth, Racial Healing, and Transformation Commission. Do you think that is a model that could work here, and how do you imagine it looking? And for those who don’t know, can you talk about the truth and reconciliation process more generally?

Bryan Stevenson

There are countries that have engaged in a national effort of truth-telling. We saw that in South Africa after the collapse of apartheid. The truth and reconciliation process there was very powerful. The victims of apartheid had an opportunity to tell their stories. The perpetrators were also required to speak to their role. It was an important process.

We’ve seen it in Rwanda, where the victims of the genocide have been invited to give voice to their suffering, their loss. The prisons were filled with perpetrators of that violence and there was a reckoning around it.

Obviously, in Germany, we’ve seen a dramatic transformation of that country’s landscape so that you now have stones and symbols and memorials and monuments throughout cities like Berlin. There’s a Holocaust memorial in the center of Berlin. Every student in Germany as an elementary school student is required to go to the Holocaust memorials and learn that history. Police officers are required to study that history. And so it can be effective at the national level.

I’m very supportive of Representative Lee’s commission. But I want to caution that the difference between South Africa and Rwanda and Germany and the United States is that there was a transfer of power in each of those countries. Black South Africans took over South Africa once they had the vote — it’s a Black majority country. In Rwanda, the victims of the genocide ultimately regained power through military intervention. So in each case, the parameters of that truth-telling were shaped by people who had been victimized. In Germany, the Nazis lost the war. We wouldn’t see all of that iconography honoring victims of the Holocaust in Berlin had the Nazis prevailed.

With that transfer of power, we had the opportunity to do some things that we don’t have in this country. The people who were the perpetrators of so much of this bigotry and violence are still in power. There was no transfer in power after the Civil War, after the era of lynching, even after the civil rights movement. And because of that, it’s going to have to be much more atomized. I think we should have a national truth-telling commission, but that is not going to be an excuse for banks and schools and corporations and industries and police departments and localities from engaging in their own truth-telling.

I think we have to try to get people to understand that when we confront this history, we don’t have to fear punishment. I’m a lawyer. I defend people who have done things that are terrible. And I’m persuaded that each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.

Because of that, I want to talk about this history of enslavement and of native genocide and of lynching and segregation, not because I’m interested in punishing America. I want to liberate us. I really do believe there is something better waiting for us. I think there’s something that feels more like freedom. There’s something that feels more like equality. There’s something that feels more like justice that we have yet to experience in this country.

And if we are committed to this idea of America, if we believe in this idea of America, then we ought to figure out how we’re going to get to that promise that we have been denied because we have been unwilling to acknowledge the past. That’s the beauty that awaits us if we’re willing to take that step.

We opened this memorial that is dedicated to thousands of victims of racial terror lynchings. And for me, it’s been so affirming to see people come into that space. Black and white people, many of them are in tears. Many of them will wrap their arms around the monuments that represent the communities where they are from, a need to see them sobbing. But through that pain, there is beauty that emerges. You begin to see the possibility of restoration.

But until we tell the truth, we deny ourselves the opportunity for beauty. Justice can be beautiful. Reconciliation can be beautiful. Repair can be beautiful. It’s powerful to actually experience redemption. And we deny ourselves that when we insist on denying our broken past, our ugly past, our racist past, when we insist on avoiding the truth.

And because there hasn’t been a military intervention, because we are not a Black majority in this country, because there isn’t hopefully some war that transitions power, we’re going to have to compel people, call people, push people to see the beauty that comes with truth-telling and personal relationship.

You can’t overcome abuse, you can’t overcome violence, you can’t overcome victimization if you’re unwilling to reckon with all that you have suffered. And that’s the only power we possess when it comes to pushing this country. Nothing good has ever come from things that are easy. To do hard things, you gotta confront them. And so there’s no way forward at this moment in our history that doesn’t involve some discomfort and doesn’t involve some inconvenience. And you just have to find the capacity and the courage to embrace that.

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