Bryan Stevenson appears on Bill Moyers Journal to discuss racial and economic injustice

On April 2, two days before the 42nd anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s death, Professor of Clinical Law Bryan Stevenson appeared on Bill Moyers Journal for a discussion of whether the United States has made progress towards racial and economic justice since King’s death. Stevenson was joined by civil rights advocate and litigator Michelle Alexander, who holds a joint appointment at the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity and the Mortiz College of Law at Ohio State University.

Moyers first asked Stevenson and Alexander to imagine what King would think of the state of economic justice in 2010. Stevenson said he thought King would be disappointed, and pointed to the example of Wilcox County in Alabama, where King visited in 1966 to organize demonstrations in the community to confront poverty. Over 40 years later, Stevenson said, almost nothing has changed there. “I think he would be brokenhearted by that,” Stevenson said. “Today in that county there is 27 percent unemployment. Half of all black families have household incomes under $10,000 a year.”

Stevenson and Alexander agreed that the election of Barack Obama as the nation’s first African American president was thrilling, but did not change the fundamental dynamics of the country. “I think individual black achievement today masks a disturbing underlying racial reality,” Alexander said. “…Much of the data indicates that African Americans today, as a group, are not much better off than they were back in 1968 when Martin Luther King delivered his "The Other America" speech.”

The discussion touched on other issues of racial and economic justice: the effect that the “War on Drugs” has had on people of color and on poor communities; voting rights for convicted felons; mass incarceration and capital punishment; and the difficulties of working within America’s criminal justice system for those with limited resources. “We have a criminal justice system that is very wealth sensitive,” said Stevenson. “Our system treats you better if you’re rich and guilty than if you’re poor and innocent.”

"I don't think we can overcome our racist past without recognizing the consequences of decades of segregation, without recognizing the consequences of terrorizing a group of people based on their race,” Stevenson told Moyers. “I think we can actually find some reconciliation if we tell the truth about those histories and we deal with them in a structured, sensible way.”

Posted April 5, 2010