Innocent or not?

What? In the book, Just Mercy A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson, the readers learn about the different social identities that describe the author. The very first fact that the readers learn about Stevenson is that he is, “a twenty-three-year old student at Harvard Law School [who is] working in Georgia on an internship…” (3). This little known aspect about Stevenson’s social identity informs the readers that he is a well-educated smart young adult. The discourse about his identity of being well-educated and young adult implies that Stevenson must be upper middle class and that he might not be mature enough, because of his age. At the start of the book it was unclear whether or not he was of color, but the readers shortly discover that, “… he was an African American man… which meant he was reckless and possibly dangerous, even if he had no prior criminal history and a good reputation” (34). That last quote from the book speaks for itself about the discourse of “being black.” Just the fact that Stevenson was black put him on a negative side of the scale. Even though he is educated, middle class, that doesn’t matter because his race (African American) will allows (as long as society disapproves of people of race) dictates how he will or is treated. An example in the book where Stevenson was treated unfairly due to his skin color was when the SWAT police officers demanded that he step out of his car. One of the officers drew his gun out and aimed it towards him. Stevenson had no idea what was going on, but he cooperated with the law officials. However, the two officers felt that he was a threat and dismissed the fact that this man who was just sitting in his car listening to the radio might not be how they are after continued violating Stevenson’s rights. At that moment when this interaction was happening, Stevenson knew he did nothing wrong, “… I figured that I would let them know that everything was okay. It certainly never occurred to me that getting out of my car was wrong or dangerous” (40). Sadly, he was wrong. The social identity of “being black” has this implication in our society that black people are criminals and untrustworthy, “I could hear them talking about all the burglaries in the neighborhood. There was a particularly vocal older white woman who loudly demanded that I be questioned about items she was missing” (41). Although, if this situation were to happen again and Stevenson was a white male, he would have never been stopped by SWAT police, which proves that our society is unfair and unjust when it comes down to social identity.

Stevenson in this book also talks a lot about the system of US mass incarceration, since that was his job as an intern and now lawyer his job is to help those who can’t necessarily fight the justice system on their own. The readers learn that, “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). Personally, I agree with the statement Stevenson makes about how easy it if for many citizens in the US to condemn people whom we might suspect as harmful to our society. Although, I strongly believe that we all need to step away and realize that just because certain issues don’t directly affect us, it’s not our problem. The reality is we are one human race, and we should care and protect the justice for all, regardless of one’s race.

So What? Throughout this book, Stevenson’s shares his different social identities and personal experiences with his audience. I think that by him doing something like putting himself out there for the world to see proves that he truly does care about changing the way that society views people who have certain identities associated with their name. Without his personal experience, this book would be lacking an aspect that would allow the readers to really understand the reason behind this book. When he talks about his personal experiences that affected him in the past, goes to show how badly Stevenson wanted to create a connection with the people he had met and the people who he represented in this book. Also, I believe that Stevenson’s personal experiences opened his eyes and made him realize that the, “proximity to the condemned and incarnated made the question of each person’s humanity more urgent and meaningful, including my own” (12).

One of the questions that we were told to explore was how do Stevenson’s intersecting social identities, and the discourses that surround these identities, affect his positionality within American society? Stevenson’s positionality within American society has definitely changed since he started working with those inmates on death row. The experience that Stevenson has dealt with regards social identities and the discourses that surround those identities has affected how he sees the justice system and what he can do to change/ improve the situation. Since his shift in positionality within American society, Stevenson see’s people in a different way, “proximity has taught me some basic and humbling truths, including this vital lesson: Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done” (17–18

After reading this first few chapters in Stevenson’s book, it became very apparent that people who are accused of crimes have a much more difficult time defending themselves within the US “prison industrial complex.” The issue is that most of the inmates who are not white and privileged don’t have the proper tools needed to defend themselves. As Stevenson states, “the state had nearly a hundred people on death row as well as the fastest-growing condemned population in the country, but it also had no public defender system, which meant that large numbers of death row prisoners had no legal representation of any kind” (21). Not having any access to legal consultations already lowers the inmates’ chances of having any fair and justice chance of clearing their name if they are innocent. For example, there was an accused man named Walter that Stevenson wrote about. Walter’s case was one that no lawyer took on, because it wasn’t worth it to them, but that wasn’t the case for Stevenson. Stevenson personally received a call from the judge that was in charge of that trail and told Stevenson that he was wasting his time with this case, and that he should drop it before trial happens. However, that phone call did not stop Stevenson from perusing his goal of helping this man out. When Stevenson went to talk with Walter, he realized that this poor accused man needed a fighting chance, “when I receive the record I’ll have a better sense of what evidence they have, and we can talk about it” (22). This example that was provided compared and contrasted what not having legal aid did in Walter’s case versus what happened when Stevenson offered Walter with legal representation.

Now What? Everyone in our society has constraints that they face based on their social identity. When I first read the story, I didn’t see that Stevenson had constraints in this story. However, it became very clear that he did face some. After the incident that Stevenson encountered with SWAT police officers, he felt a constraint. At the time of the event, he wasn’t aware that the reason why he was the suspect of the home burglaries was because he was a black man. Being a man of color, is probably the biggest constraint that Stevenson will ever face in his life. In another example in the book where the author might have felt a constraint against his was when he was filling out paperwork to report the injustice that he felt needed to be addressed with higher law enforcement, “he promised that the officers would be required to do some “extra homework on community relations.” I didn’t feel vindicated” (44). I think that if Stevenson was a white male that he would have been treated differently in that situation, and that he would not feel the constraints as much as Stevenson felt as an African American. In addition to Stevenson feeling constraints based on his social identity, I believe that the inmates can also relate to some degree. The inmates experience constraints in a different, yet similar way as Stevenson did. When the inmates are in prison or jail, they adapt and change their social identity to fit in with the rest of everyone else. Some inmates will choose to better themselves while in prison, so that they can be released and contribute to society in a positive way. However, when those same inmates are released they face constraints and push back from our society. Even though they have bettered who they are society still see them as criminals, dangerous, and a threat to their community. No matter how hard one tries to get rid of the constraints associated with their social identity, they will not be successful until our society changes.

Some constraints that people at my community partner site faces as they attempt to define the meaning of their own social identities is that they are Latino or Hispanic young mothers. When others in their community hear that they had children when they were teenagers look down upon them, and think of them as mess ups. However, it isn’t completely their fault that they became teen mothers. One of the constraints that lead them down that path in life was that those mothers did not have the education, knowledge and/or resources that they need to prevent them from becoming teenage mothers. As of now those are the only constraints that I can think of that these young mothers face in today’s society.