For Christmas my sophomore year of college, my mom gave me “Just Mercy” by Bryan Stevenson. Since I had been aspiring to become a lawyer, she thought I might be inspired by the story of a lawyer who advocated for marginalized criminal defendants. She couldn’t have been more correct: Few books have the ability to transform my worldview as much as “Just Mercy” did. The work was compelling not just for its heart-wrenching stories about clients Stevenson represented, but also for the captivating and impassioned way that he made his case for justice, equality and mercy.
This combination was so compelling because, in my experience, these three ideals seem to be increasingly disentangled. The quest for justice and equality that I usually see, at this university and around the world, is a quest that reserves its compassion and mercy for only some. Often it alienates, ostracizes and condemns instead. This is found in “public-shaming” culture, which reviles and castigates without asking questions or looking for context. We often decide based on a tweet or off-hand comment that someone is incurably prejudiced, evil and irredeemable. From our high horse we look down and judge. Stevenson, in contrast, argues for understanding and forgiveness, ideals that I have found to be difficult to implement in practice, but strive for nonetheless.
I embraced these ideas surrounding justice, particularly racial justice, upon reading “Just Mercy,” but over the years as I have had to deal with academic, professional and familial challenges, they have slowly faded to the back of my mind. They came to the forefront, however, when I found myself confronted with the sort of marginalized people whom Stevenson championed over the course of my legal internships and volunteering positions. These ideas also came back to me during heated debates on racial inequality with family and friends, particularly in light of the 2016 elections. Upon the rise of racial hatred, so many who advocated for racial justice and equality responded with equal amounts of hatred and anger. This might have been an acceptable response to a neo-Nazi, but not so much to a Trump voter for whom the economy was a primary concern.
I was frustrated and disheartened that so many in our country either embraced a candidate who stirred up racial hatred and had close ties to white nationalists, or had simply chosen to look the other way. I was also worried about the response from the other side that chose to stigmatize and shame people instead of working to better understand them. Stevenson’s message came back to me, and I wondered what could have been done if bigotry had been met by mercy instead of venom.
Recently, it couldn’t have been more fitting that Stevenson spoke on campus, delivering the 25th annual Wallenberg Lecture. He was awarded the Wallenberg Medal for upholding the values of Raoul Wallenberg, a University alum who risked his life by (and was likely killed for) saving the lives of thousands of Hungarian Jews during the Holocaust. Stevenson and Raoul both embody the words inscribed on the medal, “One person can make a difference.”
During his lecture, Stevenson spoke at great length of his experiences representing clients who may have committed reprehensible crimes, but were still greatly mistreated by the criminal justice system. These stories still tugged on my heartstrings even years after having first read them in “Just Mercy.” Stevenson emphasized how the criminal justice system treats Blacks, Latinos, children, people of low income and people with mental disabilities unfairly.
Speaking of his experiences representing these guilty yet mistreated defendants, Stevenson said people “are more than the worst thing they have ever done.” When he says this he means that we should understand people are flawed and we should treat them with kindness and mercy. We should be willing to show forgiveness to people and not let them be defined by their mistakes, however severe. Stevenson also made clear that this empathy should not just be reserved for the marginalized. We use mercy when we deal with convicted felons as well as bigots.
During the lecture, Stevenson also advocated for the “power of proximity” as a way to gain understanding of the struggles of others, and thus be better able to help individuals instead of problem-solving from a distance. He also believes that this power of proximity can help to address bigotry. In fact, he believes we need to free people of their bigotry, and this can only happen when we have uncomfortable conversations. He believes these uncomfortable conversations about racism and inequality can help us address our country’s legacy of racism, and when we acknowledge and accept these truths we will be set free.
A powerful example of how effective these uncomfortable conversations can actually be is the case of Derek Black, the son of prominent white supremacists and the godson of David Duke, a former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard. Black embraced the white-nationalist ideology he was born into and surrounded by, and was widely considered to be the heir to the movement. This all began to change after he started studying at New College of Florida, a liberal and somewhat diverse university. After a few semesters of trying to hide his familial background, news spread around campus that a white supremacist was present. Although many students chose to shun him, some of Black’s acquaintances reached out to him and chose to include him. Black credits the conversations he had with these students as being one of the factors that helped him realize the damage that he had done. As a result, he has renounced the white nationalist movement.
Stevenson suggested during his lecture that children who are indoctrinated with white supremacy by their parents are subject to a certain form of child abuse. Certainly, people must take responsibility for their decisions and actions, but we must recognize that some people are taught racial superiority and hatred from a young age, which hinders their ability to recognize the liberating truth of equality. Luckily for Black, he went to school with peers who used mercy and compassion to set him free.
Stevenson encouraged us not to consider bigots and racists lost causes, and his manner of discussing issues of inequality and injustice seemed to show he had experience attempting to convert these people. His lecture was beautiful and persuasive, articulating his messages of equality, justice and mercy as convincingly as he did in his book. I appreciated that he conveyed these messages in a way that didn’t seek to punish those who didn’t already understand, but instead sought to create understanding. He avoided using overly academic terms to speak of issues of inequality and racism. He spoke with conviction and passion but avoided letting his emotions turn into anger or hatred. I hope the rest of us hoping to spread equality and fight injustice take a page out of his book, and learn to embrace mercy.
I’m not suggesting that anybody put themselves in danger or go out and befriend their local Klansman. Rather, I’m suggesting that we look for the humanity in everyone and try to have these difficult conversations when possible. Although meeting bigotry with mercy can be hard, it often helps me when I remember something I was taught in high school, “Hurt people hurt people and open hearts open hearts.”
Mary Kate Winn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.