Bringing the 'better thans' back to the fold

Talking about injustice: Professor Bryan Stevenson at Melbourne University. Photo: Joe Armao
Talking about injustice: Professor Bryan Stevenson at Melbourne University. Photo: Joe Armao

How do you convince people who have never experienced racism to care about minorities who are more likely to be imprisoned and sentenced to death?

Professor Bryan Stevenson, an African-American lawyer, has come up with a controversial approach: "In America, I'm increasingly arguing to communities that are white, non-minority, that I believe you have been the victims of abuse because as children you were taught that you are better than everybody else because of the colour of your skin."

The executive director of the pro-bono law firm Equal Justice Initiative acknowledges this is a "very hard sell", but says "we are all victims when we tolerate bias and discrimination", and the alternative – indifference to the plight of "disfavoured groups" – had created huge inequalities in the US justice system.

In his TED talk last year, where he received the longest standing ovation in the history of the conference, he said one third of black men in the United States aged between 18 and 30 were in jail, prison or on probation on parole.

"The fact that America now has the highest rate of incarceration is an indictment on its ability to engage communities and people who are struggling in an effective and meaningful way," he says.

Professor Stevenson, who defends people on death row and grew up in Alabama while segregation between African and white Americans still lingered, will speak at Melbourne University on Tuesday night. The public lecture, titled "Challenging Injustice: the American experience", will discuss the need for lawyers, advocates and activists to work more closely with disadvantaged groups to better understand their plight.

It caps off a week teaching a masters program to 33 law students at the university, and both the classes and the lecture carry a word of warning about the connection between racism, poverty and injustice.

Professor Stevenson says that unlike South Africa, which had benefited from a "Truth and Reconciliation" process, and Germany, which had confronted the legacy of the Holocaust, the US had yet to come to terms with its history of slavery and racism.

"I'm simply arguing that that model of recovery from decades of human rights violations has utility in the United States and in many other societies," he says.

While Australia was not on par with the US, which still enforces the death penalty and has the world's highest rate of incarceration, Professor Stevenson says the over-representation of indigenous peoples in the justice system, policy discussions about mandatory minimum sentences and instances where children had been moved to adult prisons in Australia were symptomatic of an international tendency to "sensationalise crime, to let bad crimes become bad laws and bad laws to become bad policies".

"Then you have the basic elements for creating a system that, if not managed, if not confronted, will replicate some of the injustice and inequality you see in the States.

"You're doing so much better than we do but you have to be ever vigilant to protect against these developments that will quickly change a society."

The phrase "ever vigilant" could well describe the Harvard graduate, who founded the Equal Justice Initiative in 1989 when there were no public defender programs "and almost no resources or lawyers available to help folks on death row".

"We thought we could create an institutional presence that would provide some hope to the community of condemned people there," he says. "1989 was a year when Alabama's four executions represented 25 per cent of the people executed nationwide and some kind of intervention in Alabama seemed critical."

He was hopeful that the death penalty, which he has campaigned against for decades, could be abolished in the US within his lifetime but says this was "not inevitable".

Professor Stevenson rattles off his firm's annual caseload like mundane items on a shopping list: 100 people on death row, more than 100 children sentenced to life imprisonment, two to three dozen wrongful conviction reform cases. "It's a pretty healthy docket," he says.

Every night he answers emails from colleagues in Alabama at all hours because a day after he returns home, he will appear before a court to defend a man he believes was wrongfully convicted, and who has been on death row for more than 25 years.

Professor Stevenson agrees that he could be called an "activist lawyer".

"A lot of what needs to be changed is known primarily to lawyers because we're proximate, we see it. So I think we have an obligation to do justice and that sometimes means pushing things and shaking things . . . and changing the laws."

This story Bringing the 'better thans' back to the fold first appeared on The Age.