Racism as Institutional Injustice

In March 2012 an African American defense attorney named Bryan Stevenson gave a TED Talk called “We Need to Talk about an Injustice.” While not yet the household name he has become today, within the legal defense world Stevenson was a deeply admired figure for his work – especially with inmates on death row – through his organization the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI). Wearing a blue blazer and a white, open-collared shirt, and carrying himself with a warmth that both reflected a native kindness and masked a native strength, he stepped onto the stage and began to speak. In the following days multiple friends forwarded us a link to the talk with subject lines such as “Must see” or “Please take time to watch this.” In watching, we – like so many others – began to learn of the profound racial injustice at the heart of our criminal justice system.

The statistics Stevenson presents are startling. In 1972, America had roughly 300,000 people in prison, but we now have over 2.3 million – the highest incarceration rate in the world. One-third of African American men in this country between the ages of 18 and 30 are either in jail, on probation, in prison, or on parole (and the rate is 50 to 60 percent in some major cities in America). African American defendants are eleven times more likely than White defendants to receive the death penalty, and twenty-two times more likely if the victim of the crime is White. In many states, these criminal convictions have led to permanent disenfranchisement – the loss of the right to vote. In Alabama, for instance, 34 percent of African Americans have lost this right to vote. By the year 2022, the percentage of disenfranchised African Americans without the right to vote will be higher than before the passage of the Voting RIghts Act of 1965. Stevenson paints a picture of a profound racial injustice in our midst. Appealing explicitly to hope, Stevenson reminds us that each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done, and that we as a people will be judged not by our capacity for technological innovation but by our capacity to care for the poor, the marginalized, and the incarcerated. He invites us to join him in this work of telling the truth about the shadow side of our national history, acknowledging the injustice of it, and laboring toward a criminal justice system that is, well, just.

As he concluded his remarks and began to walk off stage, the crowd stood and gave Stevenson an ovation that lasted nearly two minutes. It was a sign of things to come. Over the next few years, this man and this message emerged with greater force in the American imagination. In 2014, Stevenson released his book, Just Mercy, a moving personal account of his work to defend the rights of men, women, and children trapped in our national correctional system. In 2016, Ava DuVernay released her award-winning documentary 13th – a reflection on race, mass incarceration, and the Thirteenth Amendment – and featured Stevenson prominently in its story. In f2018, Stevenson’s EJI opened the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, which memorializes and honors the victims of lynching in America. It is estimated that nearly ten thousand people attended the opening ceremonies of the memorial, and the New York TImes named it as a top tourism destination in 2018. In 2019, Just Mercy, a feature film starring Michael B. Jordan and Jamie Foxx and based on Stevenson’s book, became a national sensation. Stevenson’s rise was astonishing. Wherever we went – churches, colleges, conferences, family reunions – we heard people talking not only about Bryan Stevenson but also about the racial injustice at the heart of our legal system and how it could change. And not only talking but doing. Both of us have friends who enrolled in law school or who changed the course of their existing legal careers in order to respond to Stevenson’s call.

This response indicates a powerful awareness that racism in America expresses itself not merely as personal prejudice or as relational division but as institutional injustice. The same prejudices and estrangement that mark our individual and relational lives are encoded – often invisibly – in the institutions that shape our common life. As we will explore in the following chapters, racism in America has neve been merely personal or even relational – it has always had an institutional shape. Look no further than slavery itself. This system was never just about the prejudices in the heart of the masters or their broken relationships with the slaves (though both were real). It was, rather, a system that aspired to comprehensive control of the person – bodily, economically, educationally, and politically.

Even after emancipation, the racist impulses of slavery were encoded in virtually every American institution. American culture not only maintained but intensified the racist patterns of American slavery in institutions related to law, education, health care, banking, housing, labor, and criminal justice. And – as Stevenson points out – in our own time, some 160 years after emancipation and 70 years after the legal end of Jim Crow, many of these patterns remain. 

From “Reparations: A Christian Call for Repentance and Repair” by Duke L. Kwon and Gregory Thompson