Bryan Steven­son

The New York Review of Books - - Contents - Bryan Steven­son

Late one night sev­eral years ago, I got out of my car on a dark mid­town At­lanta street when a man stand­ing fif­teen feet away pointed a gun at me and threat­ened to “blow my head off.” I’d been parked out­side my new apart­ment in a racially mixed but mostly white neigh­bor­hood that I didn’t con­sider a high-crime area. As the man re­peated the threat, I sup­pressed my first in­stinct to run and fear­fully raised my hands in help­less sub­mis­sion. I begged the man not to shoot me, re­peat­ing over and over again, “It’s all right, it’s okay.” The man was a uni­formed po­lice of­fi­cer. As a crim­i­nal de­fense at­tor­ney, I knew that my sur­vival re­quired care­ful, strate­gic think­ing. I had to stay calm. I’d just re­turned home from my law of­fice in a car filled with le­gal pa­pers, but I knew the of­fi­cer hold­ing the gun had not stopped me be­cause he thought I was a young pro­fes­sional. Since I was a young, bearded black man dressed ca­su­ally in jeans, most peo­ple would not as­sume I was a lawyer with a Har­vard Law School de­gree. To the of­fi­cer threat­en­ing to shoot me I looked like some­one dan­ger­ous and guilty.

I had been sit­ting in my beat-up Honda Civic for over a quar­ter of an hour lis­ten­ing to mu­sic that could not be heard out­side the ve­hi­cle. There was a Sly and the Fam­ily Stone ret­ro­spec­tive play­ing on a lo­cal ra­dio sta­tion that had so en­gaged me I couldn’t turn the ra­dio off. It had been a long day at work. A neigh­bor must have been alarmed by the sight of a black man sit­ting in his car and called the po­lice. My get­ting out of my car to ex­plain to the po­lice of­fi­cer that this was my home and noth­ing crim­i­nal was tak­ing place prompted him to pull his weapon. Hav­ing drawn his weapon, the of­fi­cer and his part­ner jus­ti­fied their threat of lethal force by dra­ma­tiz­ing their fears and sus­pi­cions about me. They threw me on the back of my car, searched it il­le­gally, and kept me on the street for fif­teen hu­mil­i­at­ing min­utes while neigh­bors gath­ered to view the dan­ger­ous crim­i­nal in their midst. When no crime was dis­cov­ered and noth­ing in­crim­i­nat­ing turned up in a com­put­er­ized back­ground check on me, I was told by the two of­fi­cers to con­sider my­self lucky. While this was said as a taunt, they were right: I was lucky. Peo­ple of color in the United States, par­tic­u­larly young black men, are of­ten as­sumed to be guilty and dan­ger­ous. In too many sit­u­a­tions, black men are con­sid­ered of­fend­ers in­ca­pable of be­ing vic­tims them­selves. As a con­se­quence of this coun­try’s fail­ure to ad­dress ef­fec­tively its legacy of racial in­equal­ity, this pre­sump­tion of guilt and the his­tory that cre­ated it have sig­nif­i­cantly shaped ev­ery in­sti­tu­tion in Amer­i­can so­ci­ety, es­pe­cially our crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem.

At the Civil War’s end, black au­ton­omy ex­panded but white supremacy re­mained deeply rooted. States be­gan to look to the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem to con­struct poli­cies and strate­gies to main­tain the sub­or­di­na­tion of African Amer­i­cans. Con­vict leas­ing, the prac­tice of “sell­ing” the la­bor of state and lo­cal pris­on­ers to pri­vate in­ter­ests for state profit, used the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem to take away their po­lit­i­cal rights. State leg­is­la­tures passed the Black Codes, which cre­ated new crim­i­nal of­fenses such as “va­grancy” and “loi­ter­ing” and led to the mass ar­rest of black peo­ple. Then, re­ly­ing on lan­guage in the Thir­teenth Amend­ment that pro­hibits slav­ery and in­vol­un­tary servi­tude “ex­cept as pun­ish­ment for crime,” law­mak­ers au­tho­rized white-con­trolled gov­ern­ments to ex­ploit the la­bor of African-Amer­i­cans in pri­vate lease con­tracts or on state-owned farms.1 The le­gal scholar Jen­nifer

Rae Tay­lor has ob­served:

While a black pris­oner was a rar­ity dur­ing the slav­ery era (when slave masters were in­di­vid­u­ally em­pow­ered to ad­min­is­ter “dis­ci­pline” to their hu­man prop­erty), the so­lu­tion to the free black pop­u­la­tion had be­come crim­i­nal­iza­tion. In turn, the most com­mon fate fac­ing black con­victs was to be sold into forced la­bor for the profit of the state.

Be­gin­ning as early as 1866 in states like Texas, Mis­sis­sippi, and Ge­or­gia, con­vict leas­ing spread through­out the South and con­tin­ued through the late nine­teenth and early twentieth cen­turies. Leased black con­victs faced de­plorable, un­safe work­ing con­di­tions and bru­tal vi­o­lence when they at­tempted to re­sist or es­cape bondage. An 1887 re­port by the Hinds County, Mis­sis­sippi, grand jury recorded that six months af­ter 204 con­victs were leased to a man named McDonald, twenty were dead, nine­teen had es­caped, and twenty-three had been re­turned to the pen­i­ten­tiary dis­abled, ill, and near death. The pen­i­ten­tiary hospi­tal was filled with sick and dy­ing black men whose bod­ies bore “marks of the most in­hu­man and bru­tal treat­ment . . . so poor and ema­ci­ated that their bones al­most come through the skin.”2

The ex­plicit use of race to cod­ify dif­fer­ent kinds of of­fenses and pun­ish­ments was chal­lenged as un­con­sti­tu­tional, and crim­i­nal statutes were mod­i­fied to avoid di­rect racial ref­er­ences, but the en­force­ment of the law didn’t change. Black peo­ple were rou­tinely charged with a wide range of “of­fenses,” some of which whites were never charged with. African Amer­i­cans en­dured th­ese chal­lenges and hu­mil­i­a­tions and con­tin­ued to rise up from slav­ery by seek­ing ed­u­ca­tion and work­ing hard un­der dif­fi­cult con­di­tions, but their re­fusal to act like slaves seemed only to pro­voke and ag­i­tate their white neigh­bors. This ten­sion led to an era of lynch­ing and vi­o­lence that trau­ma­tized black peo­ple for decades.

B etween the Civil War and World War II, thou­sands of African-Amer­i­cans were lynched in the United States. Lynch­ings were bru­tal pub­lic mur­ders that were tol­er­ated by state and fed­eral of­fi­cials. Th­ese racially mo­ti­vated acts, meant to by­pass le­gal in­sti­tu­tions in order to in­tim­i­date en­tire pop­u­la­tions, be­came a form of ter­ror­ism. Lynch­ing had a pro­found ef­fect on race re­la­tions in the United States and de­fined the ge­o­graphic, po­lit­i­cal, so­cial, and eco­nomic con­di­tions of African Amer­i­cans in ways that are still ev­i­dent to­day.

Of the hun­dreds of black peo­ple lynched af­ter be­ing ac­cused of rape and mur­der, very few were le­gally con­victed of a crime, and many were demon­stra­bly in­no­cent. In 1918, for ex­am­ple, af­ter a white woman was raped in Lewis­ton, North Carolina, a black sus­pect named Peter Bazemore was lynched by a mob be­fore an in­ves­ti­ga­tion re­vealed that the real per­pe­tra­tor had been a white man wear­ing black­face makeup.3 Hun­dreds more black peo­ple were lynched based on ac­cu­sa­tions of far less se­ri­ous crimes, like ar­son, rob­bery, non­sex­ual as­sault, and va­grancy, many of which would not have been pun­ish­able by death even if the de­fen­dants had been con­victed in a court of law. In ad­di­tion, African-Amer­i­cans were fre­quently lynched for not con­form­ing to so­cial cus­toms or racial ex­pec­ta­tions, such as speak­ing to white peo­ple with less re­spect or for­mal­ity than ob­servers be­lieved due.4

Many African-Amer­i­cans were lynched not be­cause they had been ac­cused of com­mit­ting a crime or so­cial in­frac­tion, but sim­ply be­cause they were black and present when the pre­ferred party could not be lo­cated. In 1901, Bal­lie Crutch­field’s brother al­legedly found a lost wal­let con­tain­ing $120 and kept the money. He was ar­rested and about to be lynched by a mob in Smith County, Ten­nessee, when, at the last mo­ment, he was able to break free and es­cape. Thwarted in their at­tempt to kill him, the mob turned their at­ten­tion to his sis­ter and lynched her in­stead, though she was not even al­leged to have been in­volved in the theft.

New re­search con­tin­ues to re­veal the ex­tent of lynch­ing in Amer­ica. The ex­tra­or­di­nary doc­u­men­ta­tion com­piled by Pro­fes­sor Mon­roe Work (1866–1945) at Tuskegee Univer­sity has been an in­valu­able his­tor­i­cal re­source for schol­ars, as has the joint work of so­ci­ol­o­gists Ste­wart Tol­nay and E.M. Beck. Th­ese two sources are widely viewed as the most com­pre­hen­sive col­lec­tions of data on the sub­ject in Amer­ica. They have un­cov­ered over three thousand in­stances of lynch­ing be­tween the end of Re­con­struc­tion in 1877 and 1950 in the twelve states that had the most lynch­ings: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Ge­or­gia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mis­sis­sippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Ten­nessee, Texas, and Vir­ginia. Recently, the Equal Jus­tice Ini­tia­tive (EJI) in Mont­gomery, Alabama— of which I am the founder and ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor—spent five years and hun­dreds of hours re­view­ing this re­search and other doc­u­men­ta­tion, in­clud­ing lo­cal news­pa­pers, his­tor­i­cal archives, court records, in­ter­views, and re­ports

in African-Amer­i­can news­pa­pers. Our re­search doc­u­mented more than four thousand racial ter­ror lynch­ings be­tween 1877 and 1950 in those twelve states, eight hun­dred more than had been pre­vi­ously re­ported. We dis­tin­guished “racial ter­ror lynch­ings” from hang­ings or mob vi­o­lence that fol­lowed some sort of crim­i­nal trial or were com­mit­ted against non­mi­nori­ties. How­ever heinous, this sec­ond cat­e­gory of killings was a crude form of pun­ish­ment. By con­trast, racial ter­ror lynch­ings were di­rected specif­i­cally at black peo­ple, with lit­tle bear­ing on an ac­tual crime; the aim was to main­tain white supremacy and po­lit­i­cal and eco­nomic racial sub­or­di­na­tion.

We also dis­tin­guished ter­ror lynch­ings from other racial vi­o­lence and hate crimes that were pros­e­cuted as crim­i­nal acts, al­though pros­e­cu­tion for hate crimes com­mit­ted against black peo­ple was rare be­fore World War II. The lynch­ings we doc­u­mented were acts of ter­ror­ism be­cause they were mur­ders car­ried out with im­punity— some­times in broad day­light, as Sher­ri­lyn Ifill ex­plains in her im­por­tant book on the sub­ject, On the Court­house Lawn (2007)—whose per­pe­tra­tors were never held ac­count­able. Th­ese killings were not ex­am­ples of “fron­tier jus­tice,” be­cause they gen­er­ally took place in com­mu­ni­ties where there was a func­tion­ing crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem that was deemed too good for African-Amer­i­cans. Some “pub­lic spec­ta­cle lynch­ings” were even at­tended by the en­tire lo­cal white pop­u­la­tion and con­ducted as cel­e­bra­tory acts of racial con­trol and dom­i­na­tion. Records show that racial ter­ror lynch­ings from Re­con­struc­tion un­til World War II had six par­tic­u­larly com­mon mo­ti­va­tions: (1) a wildly dis­torted fear of in­ter­ra­cial sex; (2) as a re­sponse to ca­sual so­cial trans­gres­sions; (3) af­ter al­le­ga­tions of se­ri­ous vi­o­lent crime; (4) as pub­lic spec­ta­cle, which could be pre­cip­i­tated by any of the al­le­ga­tions named above; (5) as ter­ror­is­tic vi­o­lence against the African-Amer­i­can pop­u­la­tion as a whole; and (6) as ret­ri­bu­tion for share­crop­pers, min­is­ters, and other com­mu­nity lead­ers who re­sisted mis­treat­ment—the last be­com­ing com­mon be­tween 1915 and 1945.

Our re­search con­firmed that many vic­tims of ter­ror lynch­ings were mur­dered with­out be­ing ac­cused of any crime; they were killed for mi­nor so­cial trans­gres­sions or for as­sert­ing ba­sic rights. Our con­ver­sa­tions with sur­vivors of lynch­ings also con­firmed how di­rectly lynch­ing and racial ter­ror mo­ti­vated the forced mi­gra­tion of mil­lions of black Amer­i­cans out of the South. Thou­sands of peo­ple fled north for fear that a so­cial mis­step in an en­counter with a white per­son might pro­voke a mob to show up and take their lives. Par­ents and spouses suf­fered what they char­ac­ter­ized as “near-lynch­ings” and sent their loved ones away in fran­tic, desperate acts of pro­tec­tion.

The de­cline of lynch­ing in Amer­ica co­in­cided with the in­creased use of cap­i­tal pun­ish­ment of­ten fol­low­ing ac­cel­er­ated, un­re­li­able le­gal pro­cesses in state courts. By the end of the 1930s, court-or­dered ex­e­cu­tions out­paced lynch­ings in the for­mer slave states for the first time. Two thirds of those ex­e­cuted that decade were black, and the trend con­tin­ued: as African Amer­i­cans fell to just 22 per­cent of the south­ern pop­u­la­tion be­tween 1910 and 1950, they con­sti­tuted 75 per­cent of those ex­e­cuted.

Prob­a­bly the most fa­mous at­tempted “le­gal lynch­ing” is the case of the “Scottsboro Boys,” nine young African-Amer­i­cans charged with rap­ing two white women in Alabama in 1931. Dur­ing the trial, white mobs out­side the court­room de­manded the teens’ ex­e­cu­tions. Rep­re­sented by in­com­pe­tent lawyers, the nine were con­victed by all-white, all-male ju­ries within two days, and all but the youngest were sen­tenced to death. When the NAACP and oth­ers launched a na­tional move­ment to chal­lenge the cur­sory pro­ceed­ings, the le­gal scholar Stephen Bright has writ­ten, “the [white] peo­ple of Scottsboro did not un­der­stand the re­ac­tion. Af­ter all, they did not lynch the ac­cused; they gave them a trial.”5 In re­al­ity, many de­fen­dants of the era learned that the prospect of be­ing ex­e­cuted rather than lynched did lit­tle to in­tro­duce fair­ness into the out­come. Though north­ern states had abol­ished pub­lic ex­e­cu­tions by 1850, some in the South main­tained the prac­tice un­til 1938. The spec­ta­cles were more of­ten in­tended to de­ter mob lynch­ings than crimes. Fol­low­ing Will Mack’s ex­e­cu­tion by pub­lic hang­ing in Bran­don, Mis­sis­sippi, in 1909, the Bran­don News rea­soned:

Pub­lic hang­ings are wrong, but un­der the cir­cum­stances, the quiet ac­qui­es­cence of the peo­ple to sub­mit to a le­gal trial, and their good be­hav­ior through­out, left no al­ter­na­tive to the board of su­per­vi­sors but to grant the al­most univer­sal de­mand for a pub­lic ex­e­cu­tion.

Even in south­ern states that had out­lawed pub­lic hang­ings much ear­lier, mobs of­ten suc­cess­fully de­manded them.

In Sumter­ville, Florida, in 1902, a black man named Henry Wilson was con­victed of mur­der in a trial that lasted just two hours and forty min­utes. To mol­lify the mob of armed whites that filled the court­room, the judge promised a death sen­tence that would be car­ried out by pub­lic hang­ing— de­spite state law pro­hibit­ing pub­lic ex­e­cu­tions. Even so, when the ex­e­cu­tion was set for a later date, the en­raged mob threat­ened, “We’ll hang him be­fore sun­down, gover­nor or no gover­nor.” In re­sponse, Florida of­fi­cials moved up the date, au­tho­rized Wilson to be hanged be­fore the jeer­ing mob, and con­grat­u­lated them­selves on hav­ing “avoided” a lynch­ing.

In the 1940s and 1950s, the NAACP’s Le­gal De­fense Fund (LDF) be­gan what would be­come a mul­ti­decade lit­i­ga­tion strat­egy to chal­lenge the Amer­i­can death penalty—which was used most ac­tively in the South—as racially bi­ased and un­con­sti­tu­tional. It won in Fur­man v. Ge­or­gia in 1972, when the Supreme Court struck down Ge­or­gia’s death penalty statute, hold­ing that cap­i­tal pun­ish­ment still too closely re­sem­bled “self-help, vig­i­lante jus­tice,

and lynch law” and “if any ba­sis can be dis­cerned for the se­lec­tion of th­ese few to be sen­tenced to die, it is the con­sti­tu­tion­ally im­per­mis­si­ble ba­sis of race.”

South­ern op­po­nents of the de­ci­sion im­me­di­ately de­cried it and set to writ­ing new laws au­tho­riz­ing the death penalty. Fol­low­ing Fur­man, Mis­sis­sippi Se­na­tor James O. East­land ac­cused the Court of “leg­is­lat­ing” and “de­stroy­ing our sys­tem of govern­ment,” while Ge­or­gia’s white su­prem­a­cist lieu­tenant gover­nor, Lester Mad­dox, called the de­ci­sion “a li­cense for an­ar­chy, rape, and mur­der.” In De­cem­ber 1972, Florida be­came the first state af­ter Fur­man to en­act a new death penalty statute, and within two years, thirty-five states had fol­lowed suit. Pro­po­nents of Ge­or­gia’s new death penalty bill un­apolo­get­i­cally bor­rowed the rhetoric of lynch­ing, in­sist­ing, as Mad­dox put it:

There should be more hang­ings. Put more nooses on the gal­lows. We’ve got to make it safe on the street again.... It wouldn’t be too bad to hang some on the court house square, and let those who would plunder and de­stroy see.

State rep­re­sen­ta­tive Guy Hill of At­lanta pro­posed a bill that would re­quire death by hang­ing to take place “at or near the court­house in the county in which the crime was com­mit­ted.” Ge­or­gia state rep­re­sen­ta­tive James H. “Sloppy” Floyd re­marked, “If peo­ple com­mit th­ese crimes, they ought to burn.” In 1976, in Gregg v. Ge­or­gia, the Supreme Court up­held Ge­or­gia’s new statute and thus re­in­stated the Amer­i­can death penalty, ca­pit­u­lat­ing to the claim that le­gal ex­e­cu­tions were needed to pre­vent vig­i­lante mob vi­o­lence.

T he new death penalty statutes con­tin­ued to re­sult in racial im­bal­ance, and con­sti­tu­tional chal­lenges per­sisted. In the 1987 case of McCleskey v. Kemp, the Supreme Court con­sid­ered sta­tis­ti­cal ev­i­dence demon­strat­ing that Ge­or­gia of­fi­cials were more than four times as likely to im­pose a death sen­tence for the killing of a white per­son than a black per­son. Ac­cept­ing the data as ac­cu­rate, the Court con­ceded that racial dis­par­i­ties in sen­tenc­ing “are an in­evitable part of our crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem” and up­held Warren McCleskey’s death sen­tence be­cause he had failed to iden­tify “a con­sti­tu­tion­ally sig­nif­i­cant risk of racial bias” in his case.

To­day, large racial dis­par­i­ties con­tinue in cap­i­tal sen­tenc­ing. African Amer­i­cans make up less than 13 per­cent of the na­tional pop­u­la­tion, but nearly 42 per­cent of those cur­rently on death row and 34 per­cent of those ex­e­cuted since 1976. In 96 per­cent of states where re­searchers have ex­am­ined the re­la­tion­ship be­tween race and the death penalty, re­sults re­veal a pat­tern of dis­crim­i­na­tion based on the race of the vic­tim, the race of the de­fen­dant, or both. Mean­while, in cap­i­tal tri­als to­day the ac­cused is of­ten the only per­son of color in the court­room and il­le­gal racial dis­crim­i­na­tion in jury se­lec­tion con­tin­ues to be wide­spread. In Hous­ton County, Alabama, pros­e­cu­tors have ex­cluded 80 per­cent of qual­i­fied African-Amer­i­cans from serv­ing as ju­rors in death penalty cases. More than eight in ten Amer­i­can lynch­ings be­tween 1889 and 1918 oc­curred in the South, and more than eight in ten of the more than 1,400 le­gal ex­e­cu­tions car­ried out in this coun­try since 1976 have been in the South, where the legacy of the na­tion’s em­brace of slav­ery lingers. To­day death sen­tences are dis­pro­por­tion­ately meted out to African-Amer­i­cans ac­cused of crimes against white vic­tims; ef­forts to com­bat racial bias and cre­ate fed­eral pro­tec­tion against it in death penalty cases re­main thwarted by the fa­mil­iar rhetoric of states’ rights. Re­gional data demon­strate that the mod­ern Amer­i­can death penalty has its ori­gins in racial ter­ror and is, in the words of Bright, the le­gal scholar, “a di­rect de­scen­dant of lynch­ing.” In the face of this na­tional ig­nominy, there is still an as­ton­ish­ing fail­ure to ac­knowl­edge, dis­cuss, or ad­dress the his­tory of lynch­ing. Many of the com­mu­ni­ties where lynch­ings took place have gone to great lengths to erect mark­ers and memo­ri­als to the Civil War, to the Con­fed­er­acy, and to events and in­ci­dents in which lo­cal power was vi­o­lently re­claimed by white peo­ple. Th­ese com­mu­ni­ties cel­e­brate and honor the ar­chi­tects of racial sub­or­di­na­tion and po­lit­i­cal lead­ers known for their de­fense of white supremacy. But in th­ese same com­mu­ni­ties there are very few, if any, sig­nif­i­cant mon­u­ments or memo­ri­als that ad­dress the his­tory and legacy of the strug­gle for racial equal­ity and of lynch­ing in par­tic­u­lar. Many peo­ple who live in th­ese places to­day have no aware­ness that race re­la­tions in their his­to­ries in­cluded ter­ror and lynch­ing. As Ifill has ar­gued, the ab­sence of memo­ri­als to lynch­ing has deep­ened the in­jury to African Amer­i­cans and left the rest of the na­tion ig­no­rant of this cen­tral part of our his­tory.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964, ar­guably the sig­nal le­gal achieve­ment of the civil rights move­ment, con­tained pro­vi­sions de­signed to elim­i­nate dis­crim­i­na­tion in vot­ing, ed­u­ca­tion, and em­ploy­ment, but did not ad­dress racial bias in crim­i­nal jus­tice. Though it was the most in­sid­i­ous en­gine of the sub­or­di­na­tion of black peo­ple through­out the era of racial ter­ror and its af­ter­math, the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem re­mains the in­sti­tu­tion in Amer­i­can life least af­fected by the civil rights move­ment. Mass in­car­cer­a­tion in Amer­ica to­day stands as a con­tin­u­a­tion of past abuses, still lim­it­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties for our na­tion’s most vul­ner­a­ble cit­i­zens.

We can’t change our past, but we can ac­knowl­edge it and better shape our fu­ture. The United States is not the only coun­try with a vi­o­lent his­tory of op­pres­sion. Many na­tions have been bur­dened by lega­cies of racial dom­i­na­tion, for­eign oc­cu­pa­tion, or tribal con­flict re­sult­ing in per­va­sive hu­man rights abuses or geno­cide. The com­mit­ment to truth and rec­on­cil­i­a­tion in South Africa was crit­i­cal to that na­tion’s re­cov­ery. Rwanda has em­braced tran­si­tional jus­tice to heal and move for­ward. To­day in Ger­many, be­sides a num­ber of large memo­ri­als to the Holo­caust, vis­i­tors en­counter mark­ers and stones at the homes of Jewish fam­i­lies who were taken to the con­cen­tra­tion camps. But in Amer­ica, we barely ac­knowl­edge the his­tory and legacy of slav­ery, we have done noth­ing to rec­og­nize the era of lynch­ing, and only in the last few years have a few mon­u­ments to the Con­fed­er­acy been re­moved in the South.

The cru­cial ques­tion con­cern­ing cap­i­tal pun­ish­ment is not whether peo­ple de­serve to die for the crimes they com­mit but rather whether we de­serve to kill. Given the racial dis­par­i­ties that still ex­ist in this coun­try, we should elim­i­nate the death penalty and ex­pressly iden­tify our his­tory of lynch­ing as a ba­sis for its abo­li­tion. Con­fronting im­plicit bias in po­lice de­part­ments should be seen as es­sen­tial in twen­ty­first-cen­tury polic­ing.

What threat­ened to kill me on the streets of At­lanta when I was a young at­tor­ney wasn’t just a mis­guided po­lice of­fi­cer with a gun, it was the force of Amer­ica’s his­tory of racial in­jus­tice and the pre­sump­tion of guilt it cre­ated. In Amer­ica, no child should be born with a pre­sump­tion of guilt, bur­dened with ex­pec­ta­tions of fail­ure and dan­ger­ous­ness be­cause of the color of her or his skin or a par­ent’s poverty. Black peo­ple in this na­tion should be af­forded the same pro­tec­tion, safety, and op­por­tu­nity to thrive as any­one else. But that won’t hap­pen un­til we look squarely at our his­tory and com­mit to en­gag­ing the past that con­tin­ues to haunt us.

‘The mi­gra­tion gained in mo­men­tum’; paint­ing by Jacob Lawrence from his Mi­gra­tion series, 1940–1941

Pro­test­ers in Bal­ti­more af­ter the death of Fred­die Gray, April 2015; pho­to­graph by Devin Allen from his new book, A Beau­ti­ful Ghetto.

It in­cludes a fore­word by Keeanga-Yamahtta Tay­lor and an in­tro­duc­tion by D. Watkins, and has just been pub­lished by Hay­mar­ket Books.

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