Race and justice in America: inspiring TED talk

Bryan Stevenson, a lawyer who defends poor African-American people caught in the US justice system. In this incredible, moving, inspiring TED talk, he discusses the way that race and injustice are entwined in the US legal system:

In an engaging and personal talk -- with cameo appearances from his grandmother and Rosa Parks -- human rights lawyer Bryan Stevenson shares some hard truths about America's justice system, starting with a massive imbalance along racial lines: a third of the country's black male population has been incarcerated at some point in their lives. These issues, which are wrapped up in America's unexamined history, are rarely talked about with this level of candor, insight and persuasiveness.

Bryan Stevenson: We need to talk about an injustice (Thanks, @gnat!)


  1. I’d like to see more great voices and minds (marginalized, oppressed, dismissed) get their platform and amplification. Mr. Stevenson’s work reminded me instantly of this gem from a recent novel:

    “Here is the truth—actual heroism receives no ovation, entertains no one. No one queues up to see it. No one is interested.” – The Pale King

    1. I was neighbors with a civil rights lawyer who told me some hair raising stories about police relations with black people in present day Birmingham. 

      He had a client (well, his family was the client) who had been shot to death by the police. The police claimed he had attacked, and the family claimed he was awoken by the police break-in and had not risen from bed. The entrance wound was in his client’s lower back, and the exit wound was in the front of his shoulder.

      I don’t know how the case turned out, but the fact that the police would attempt to claim self defense despite evidence like that speaks volumes to me about what they expect of the court system.

  2. The justice system needs a vast overhaul, and the main reason it probably will not change any time soon is the cheap labor that it yields. For every nineteen year old they can force to pick up litter for a year or more while incarcerated because he smoked a joint, that is $32,000-$50,000 a year that they do not have to pay a county employed worker.

    On top of that, most military goods, the helmets, dogtags, ammo belts, all are made by prison labor. The majority of commercial paints, office furniture, and even a fair share of electric appliances are produced by this cheap labor. It isn’t just license plates any more. There is no effort to reform, or even to punish, but only to detain so that this newer, faux-legal state of slavery can continue to produce. If things start to level out, new things are labelled illegal so that the free labor can continue to roll in through booking. 

  3. You know, it’s funny.

    People seem surprised that the United States – the epitome of Capitalism – displays all the flaws of a capitalist system.

    Greed. Corruption. Labor exploitation. Ruthlessness. Dishonesty. Lack of accountability. Power vested in the wealthy. Despair vested in the poor.

    When you believe in a system that essentially states “Compete or Die”, how can you be surprised when those who are less able to compete end up dead and dying? If you don’t believe that only the fittest should survive, would why you base the workings of your economy on that very concept?

    Capitalism PRODUCES poverty. Capitalism PRODUCES wealthy elites. Capitalism PRODUCES suffering. Capitalism PRODUCES injustice.

  4. I dare people to listen to this and then continue to cling to their ignorance and naivete. Look at your friends list and find the people of color. Then think about what it means to be black or brown and walk into a restaurant or store. Know that no matter how hard you work or what you achieve, for many you will never be more than the color of your skin. Then think about your opinions of what it means to be poor, to be unemployed, to be mired in hopelessness, filled with fear, and non-white in the U.S.

    We who have well paying jobs and hope for the future are becoming a minority, an arrogant minority. A minority that believes it has the knowledge and the wisdom to decide for the majority what is best for them. A minority that firmly believes that those who have been less successful than ourselves are only that way because of weakness and sloth.

    If you are reading this you are probably white. If you are white you are definitely privileged, whether you understand this privilege or not. In other words you are just plain fucking lucky. Yet, many will take full credit for all of their victories, while blaming the losers for all of their losses.

    Then, after listening to this man, think honestly and objectively about the rich white guy, or Mr. Obama, for whom you are about to vote, who can’t possibly understand your lowly position. Then, take one more step with humility and empathy, and admit that your ignorance and naivete about those less fortunate than yourself is equal to these wealthy men’s ignorance of you. Admit that your understanding and opinion of what it means to be non-white, even a successful person of color, is also just as ignorant and naive.

    Never forget that a very large percentage of our population thinks that even a rich and exceedingly successful man like Mr. Obama is still nothing more than an ugly hateful name boing boing will not print in any context.

    1. Great comment!

      I want to refine this part, though:

      Then, take one more step with humility and empathy, and admit that your ignorance and naivete about those less fortunate than yourself is equal to their ignorance of you.

      In terms of race, the ignorance of many, many non-white people about white people in general does not equal that of white people about non-white people. 

      People of color have been studying white people, by necessity, for centuries. They often have long traditions of such knowledge, necessitated by the desire to merely survive. 

      I think it could even be said that in terms of common white ways, common white proclivities, non-white people understand white people even better than they understand themselves.

      1. Thanks! Though the change I did make was to hopefully make it easier to understand that we are just as ignorant of those who are less fortunate economically or socially than ourselves as these wealthy men are of us.

        I’m trying to illustrate that many reasonably fortunate, predominately white voters are no less naive about the lives of those who are less fortunate than they, or about what it means to be non-white fortunate or not, as the wealthy almost entirely white male politicians making decisions concerning topics like healthcare, education, or social, criminal, and economic justice are about the lives of those they govern.

        As a reasonably fortunate privileged heterosexual white male it is extremely difficult to know what it is like to suffer continuous discrimination, because the privileges I enjoy are invisible to me.

        Likewise, other than listening to speakers like Mr. Stevenson I can not speak about what people of color may know about white people, though I have no reason to doubt your opinion as it is obvious that white people seem to be in general rather naive.

        1. Right on. And I do get now that you get that those privileges of yours are likely far more visible to those who don’t have them than they are to people like you.

    2. while blaming the losers for all of their losses.
      It’s appropriate not to blame the losers, but to instead blame a half century or more of seriously misguided policies.

      1. Exactly, yet those of us who are more fortunate like to take credit for all of our own successes, while blaming those who are less fortunate for their lack of wealth and branding them losers.

        This is the myth that hard work always yields economic success, which by implication means failure to achieve economic success is always the result of laziness and stupidity.

        Put more simply, poor people are poor because they are lazy parasites. Poor people are poor because they failed to make a choice to be rich.

        Those who not only don’t suffer discrimination, but benefit in ways they cannot appreciate, have a lot to learn about not just the last fifty years, but the last few hundred years.

  5. That was a truly fantastic and inspiring way to start my day.  Thanks for posting, Cory.  Nothing that Mr. Stevenson said was a surprise to me and I am definitely part of the choir he preaches to, but it really reminded me how much more I need to do, on a daily basis, to be the change I want to see in the world.

  6. How heartbreaking to hear, but also– what a wonderful way to start the day.  It was only relatively recently that my own ignorance about this issue, as a white person, started to diminish because of some education classes I took that had an anti-racist focus.  One of the big challenges I find myself facing though is how to encapsulate the part of the message that can be transformative to a white person’s mindset– to change it from just being “well sure there are more people of color who are incarcerated, but that just must be because…[x, y, and z]” to a more subtle understanding of both the meaning and the magnitude of that fact.  I guess what I’m trying to say is I think that Stevenson did a really marvelous job at doing just that, at both depicting the issue and creating hypotheticals and metaphors that might make someone scratch their head and go “hm”.  For instance, when he presented the “what if” of a Germany with a death penalty that is used against a disproportionate percentage of Jews, this was a very good illustration that is really a very true parallel to what is going on in this country.

    1. For instance, when he presented the “what if” of a Germany with a death penalty that is used against a disproportionate percentage of Jews, this was a very good illustration that is really a very true parallel to what is going on in this country.

      I agree. And I don’t think at all that it would be fair to invoke Godwin’s Law in this situation.

      I just watched this talk and agree with others here; he’s very, very good at speaking to educated white people on their level about these issues. His insertion of some statistics amidst the humanizing anecdotes is especially impressive.

      For anyone interested in further understanding the horrific continuation of black subordination in the U.S. via the “criminal” “justice” system, I recommend Michelle Alexander’s excellent book “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.” 

      1.  Agree 100% and so does Mike Godwin.  Sometimes the Nazi comparison is apt.  In those cases it is not a Godwin.  (Comparing Obama to Hitler –> Godwin; comparing Anders Brevik to Hitler –> not a Godwin.)

  7. Why isn’t this guy running for president? What is it about western democracies that discourages this kind of clear eyed idealism?

    1. Money? Corporate interests? Politics  being a business, rather than a form of governance? Fear?

    2. There’s also the widespread preference for politicians who, if they insist on being black, also pretend that racism isn’t much of a problem anymore.

  8. Please also check out Michelle Alexander’s ‘The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness’ and her related talks/interviews.   And, agreed, TED needs more like this.

  9. Let me join the chorus of people recommending Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow.”  Even if you are already someone who is philosophically against the drug war, the book will still open your eyes to a variety of secondary and tertiary negative effects of the drug war. It also helps by putting the drug war in a social justice framework (as opposed to framing it solely as an individual rights issue), and everything is backed up with clear, compelling, and quotable statistics.  And it is wonderfully well-written.  

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