Railroad Tracks

Critical Reflection #3

What?: The image of the African-American railroad worker is a staple image in American history. The link between African-Americans and American railroads is much deeper than just transporting pieces and carrying luggage. The entire southern railroad system that was built during the slavery era was built almost exclusively by slaves. Women and men were a part of this brutal, hard, and dangerous work of railroad construction and continued to work on railroads in different, lesser roles. What is significant here is the pattern set during slavery, which was what jobs blacks were allowed and not allowed to do. Much of what was seen and done during the slavery era can be described today as,“The confluence of race and sex [being] a powerful force in dismantling Reconstruction after the Civil War, sustaining Jim Crow laws for a century and fueling divisive racial politics throughout the 20th century” (Stevenson, pg.27).

Bryan Stevenson, lawyer and author of, Just Mercy, exposes the criminal justice system and how many of the groups affected, are young Black males. While Stevenson threads his personal stories to his call-to-action, he consistently reiterates the fact that, “We’ve 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” (Stevenson, pg.15). Stevenson’s hope for human kind is that we recognize that all human rights derive from the inherent human integrity of the human being. By understanding America’s history of racial inequality and the “struggle to be equitable and fair with one another” (Stevenson, pg.4), is crucial in continuing the conversation and addressing the disparities in not just the communities, but the nation.

So What?: Stevenson expresses the concerns and addresses the failure of the United States’ to respect and protect the rights of the people, due to the,“Presumptions of guilt, poverty, racial bias, and a host of other social, structural, and political dynamics [that has] created a system that is defined by error, a system in which thousands of innocent people now suffer in prison” (Stevenson, pg.16). The author discusses the numerous malpractices found in the justice system and how he himself has played a role in the system whom he once thought was fair, but now sees that the way, “We treat the poor, the disfavored, the accused, the incarcerated, and the condemned” (Stevenson, pg.18), is a sad, disturbing, and corrupt form of punishment for those thrown into the crooked scheme.

Stevenson “Recognizes that [he] had been struggling [his] whole life with the question of how and why people are judged unfairly” (Stevenson, pg.13). He shines light through the stories shared by the prisoners he meets. For example, his first assignment for his SPDC internship, was to send a message to a condemned man, Henry, that he would not be killed in the next year. However, upon meeting him and having a conversation with Henry, Stevenson states that, “He gave me an astonishing measure of his humanity…Henry altered something in my understanding of human potential, redemption, and hopefulness” (Stevenson, pg.12). Similar to Henry, Stevenson grew up in a poor, rural racially segregated town where the black people around him were strong and determined but also marginalized and excluded. Perhaps it goes without saying, but it was at this very moment where Stevenson recognized that he needed to be a lawyer dedicated to serving the poor and challenging racial discrimination in the criminal justice system. Stripped of their identity and humanity, American history has “Reestablished the subordination nation of African Americans” (Stevenson, pg.28) who are now seen as enslaved prisoners.

Now What?: The ethical dilemmas found in mass incarceration are staggering and it has gotten worse. Today we have the highest rate of incarceration in the world. “The prison population has increased from 300,000 people in the early 1970s to 2.3 million people today…and one in three black male babies born in this century is expected to be incarcerated” (Stevenson, pg.15). The pernicious image of what a black person is supposed to look like and how they should act is one of the dangerous forces when it comes to redefining what it means to be a black male in America.

However, this way of thinking is damaging because it leads to high drop-out rates, black-on-black crime, and brings a level of outrage to the black community due to the troubling image seen in the media. Stevenson addresses this particular issue towards the end of the chapter when he tells the story of Walter McMillian, a black man caught in a murder case where there was, “No evidence expect 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” (Stevenson, pg.34). The reality is that many of these negative connotations are used and seen today on not just the black community but others as well.

For instance, my community partner, RotaCare Clinic, is dedicated to providing free healthcare services to uninsured families and individuals. Many of the people who come in are low-income, perhaps undocumented, Latino families and individuals. I believe that we read, study, and learn all we want about a particular issue but we can never really say “I understand,” because we are not the ones’ living through it. Given the recent events in our country, now more than ever, people are scared for their lives. My family is scared, my friends are scared, and I am scared. We all share a fear of the unknown, but when it comes to identifying our role in all of this chaos, we must remember that,“Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done” (Stevenson, pg.18).