Beat the Drum for Justice

A Critical Reflection on Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson.

What?

In the United States, racism is still very much a relevant topic causing disunity in our society. Because of this disunity, negative stigma follows. A sign of it comes in the form of the masses of incarcerated minorities here in the United States. Bryan Stevenson talks about his journey of becoming a lawyer to aid convicted individuals in his writing titled, Just Mercy. Stevenson becomes inspired to help incarcerated individuals based on his belief of wanting to “do something with lives of the poor, America’s history of racial inequality, and the struggle to be equitable and fair with one another” (4). He ventures into law school and is required to meet with convicts on death row. After his experience with an inmate on death row, Stevenson realized “that there was something missing in the way we treat people in our judicial system, that maybe we judge some people unfairly” (13). This event inspires Stevenson to pursue his field of work and later write and speak about mass incarceration in the United States.

With many factors involved in the causation of mass incarceration, one aspect Stevenson expresses is the discourse regarding all convicted individuals and his goal to change the stigma against them. Stevenson states,

“We’re institutionalized policies that reduce people to their worst acts and permanently label them ‘criminal,’ ‘murderer,’ ‘rapist,’ ‘thief,’ ‘drug dealer,’ ‘sex offender,’ ‘felon’ — identities they cannot change regardless of the circumstances of their crimes or any improvements they might make in their lives” (15).

Individuals living with the labels mentioned above are affected by the fear and judgment by others who only see the discourse society has influenced. Those who live with the discourse society has placed on them may believe that they have no ability to change their label anymore.

One of the clients Stevenson works with experiences a situation that conveys the power of discourse targeted minorities face.

“But there was no evidence against McMillian — no evidence except that he was an African American man involved in an adulterous interracial affair, which meant he was reckless and possibly dangerous, even if he had no prior criminal history and a good reputation. Maybe that was evidence enough” (34).

It is our duty to be informed about different perspectives and give sympathy to those neglected. Stevenson states that he will always remember a saying his grandmother once told him, “‘You can’t understand most of the important things from a distance, Bryan. You have to get close,’ she told me all the time” (14). His grandmother’s advice explains how it is a necessity to experience and learn about the individuals involved in negative stigma.

So What?

Stevenson explains how he understands and can identify with the minorities being incarcerated in the United States. From being a Black male, aspiring lawyer, and experiencing his first encounter with an inmate on death row, Stevenson was enlightened to a reality that must be rewritten. After Stevenson’s first experience speaking with a client he states,

“I had come into the prison with such anxiety and fear about his [Henry] willingness to tolerate my inadequacy. I didn’t expect him to be compassionate or generous. I had no right to expect anything for a condemned man on death row. Yet he gave me an astonishing measure of his humanity. In that moment, Henry altered something in my understanding of human potential, redemption, and hopefulness” (12).

Prior to meeting Henry, Stevenson probably saw himself simply as a Black male who was unsure of what career to pursue right after college. After he realized his calling to serving the convicted that is when he researched the different laws and statistics that affect individuals arrested by the police. He also became aware of the large number of Black individuals targeted and incarcerated in the United States.

Stevenson later experiences this first hand after police target him to search his vehicle and interrogate him for suspicions of robberies in his neighborhood. That led Stevenson to realize,

“When I thought about what I would have done when I was sixteen year old or nineteen or even twenty-four, I was scared to realize that I might have run. The more I thought about it, the more concerned I became about all the young black boys and men in that neighborhood. Did they know not to run? Did they know to stay calm and say, ‘It’s okay’?” (43).

This experience was fuel to his aspirations to serving individuals wrongly accused and targeted. He knew the law better than the police, yet he was still categorized and stereotyped by the police. He also let the police do what they wanted since his safety is a priority in this scenario. Stevenson read the statistics and met with individuals who experienced being approached by police but being in a situation of the police searching his car with his neighbors watching from outside must have brought immense insight to the treatment minorities face in our society.

Now What?

Stevenson explains why he wrote this book as,

“This book is about getting closer to mass incarceration and extreme punishment in America. It is about how easily we condemn people in this country and the injustice we create when we allow fear, anger, and distance to shape the way we treat the most vulnerable among us” (14).

Stevenson aspires to decrease the stigma against being a Black male and the stigma incarcerated individuals face. Stevenson does this by raising awareness to the statistics that prove that minorities are more targeted and convicted, while also stating his experiences with cases involving the innocence of individuals that were stereotyped or simply stories that humanize the “criminals” in prison. The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world and “We’ve given up on rehabilitation, education, and services for the imprisoned because providing assistance to the incarcerate is apparently too kind and compassionate” (15). Stevenson wishes to teach those stigmatized by their social identities that they too can prove society wrong by speaking out about their experiences.

With our community partner, Catholic Charities Kids Club, the people in this area are faced with the negative stigma of being in the Canal area of Marin County. The program serves as a way to aid students in the Canal with a focus on reading comprehension and homework completion. With an evident achievement gap in the Canal, it is a main focus for students in Kids Club to minimize the gap with determination and hard work. The students live in cramped living spaces and may have parents who do not speak English. These conditions are not conducive for a student who is learning how to read and write in English along with mathematics. This program makes a tremendous impact on the lives of the students and their families. The students are allowed to overcome the negative social identities associated with the Canal area by pursuing education and helping their families.

It was very humbling to have my community partner in the Canal area since I heard about the discourse regarding this community since I started going to Dominican. Like Stevenson, it is very eye-opening to experience and meet the children and observe their reading comprehension and writing skills rather than researching about the efforts of the program. Awareness is a step closer to actualizing dilemmas, but going out and experiencing individuals faced with these issues creates a greater meaning to the cause.