Look Past What You See
WHAT: U.S. mass incarceration is a term used by the media to talk about the substantial increase in the amount of incarcerated people over the past half century. The media uses different discourse to make others see them in a different way. In Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson, Bryan goes to the prison to talk to Henry, the man on death row. After his visit with Henry, Bryan realizes “I had come into the prison with such anxiety and fear about his willingness to tolerate my inadequacy. I didn’t expect him to be compassionate or generous” (12). Popular discourse doesn’t allow you to see that these people are normal people too, not all are guilty. When Stevenson meets Henry for the first time, he talks about how “he looked immediately familiar to me, like everyone I’d grown up with, friends from school, people I played sports or music with, someone I’d talk to one the street about the weather” (9).
Being a black male, Stevenson agreed that the black people around him were “strong and determined but marginalized and excluded” (13). Being a black male is one of Stevenson’s identities. Another is being a lawyer. Back in that day, his two identities were seen as separate identities. He grew up in a poor, racially segregated settlement in Delaware, which meant that he was a part of a hierarchy that he would always be at the bottom of. Being a lawyer didn’t mean much. Because regardless of his education, he was assumed to be the neighborhood burglar. After his car had been illegally searched, the SWAT officer said “‘we’re going to let you go. You should be happy’” (42), as if Stevenson did something wrong and he should be appreciative of the fact that he’s not being arrested.
SO WHAT: “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’s different social identities are important in the personal experiences he shares with the reader because he can better connect with the people he was working with. When he went to see Henry, his first thoughts were about how familiar Henry looked to him. And with that, he was able to look past the fact that he was talking to a man on death row, but instead talking to a man that was so grateful to be told that he wouldn’t be executed in the next year. I feel that this connection that gave Stevenson the power later on continue his education and fight for a proper justice system wouldn’t have happened if he was a wealthy white man. There was no disconnection for Stevenson between himself and his work to help one man on death row at a time. He mentions, “I have discovered deep in the hearts of many condemned and incarcerated people, the scattered traces of hope and humanity-the seeds of restoration that come to astonishing life when nurtured by very simple interventions” (17). We are not able to see all of a prisoner’s identities because discourse labels them by the acts they have committed, and without people like Stevenson, we would not see the compassionate side of those people. Like Stevenson, everyone has multiple identities, sometimes you can’t see all of them. You only see what you want to see.
NOW WHAT: Stevenson faces the same constraints as a black male walking down the street. However, due to his education, he has an upper-hand, even though many people cannot see that. For instance, when he was being detained by SWAT officers, no one asked about the papers that fell. None of his neighbors knew he was a lawyer. People just stereotyped him and assumed he was the burglar. Regardless of Stevenson’s status and identities he creates, he will always be racially stereotyped and discriminated. Stevenson’s role is to change this and to change the media’s discourse on stereotyping everyone who is on death row, because in reality, many of those people do not deserve to be there.
The people at my community partner, Young Moms Marin, face many constraints. They are young, Latina/Hispanic women living in poverty with children. They face the fears of losing their jobs, of being homeless, of not being able to provide a meal for their children. I’ve had the honor of working with them and seeing their other identities, the ones that those who pass them by on the street cannot see.