Mass incarceration defines us as a society, Stevenson argues, the way slavery once did. The United States has less than 5 percent of the world’s population but imprisons a quarter of the world’s inmates. Most of those 2.3 million inmates are people of color. One out of every three black men in their 20s is in jail or prison, on probation or parole, or bound in some other way to the criminal justice system. Once again families are broken apart. Once again huge numbers of black men are disenfranchised, because of their criminal records. Once again people are locked out of the political and economic system. Once again we harbor within our midst black outcasts, pariahs. As the poet Yusef Komunyakaa said: “The cell block has replaced the auction block.”
In opening a discussion of American justice and America’s racial history, Stevenson hopes to help create a common national narrative, one built finally around truth rather than on the cultivated myths of the past, that will allow blacks and whites finally to move forward. It’s an ambitious goal, but he is exceptionally persuasive. When he gave a TED talk about his work last March, he received what TED leader Chris Anderson called one of the longest and loudest ovations in the conference’s history—plus pledges of $1.2 million to EJI.
Stevenson turns frequently to the Bible. He quotes to me from the Gospel of John, where Jesus says of the woman who committed adultery: “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” He tells me an elderly black woman once called him a “stone catcher.”
“There is no such thing as being a Christian and not being a stone catcher,” he says. “But that is exhausting. You’re not going to catch them all. And it hurts. If it doesn’t make you sad to have to do that, then you don’t understand what it means to be engaged in an act of faith....But if you have the right relationship to it, it is less of a burden, finally, than a blessing. It makes you feel stronger.
“These young kids who I have sometimes pulled close to me, there is nothing more affirming than that moment. It may not carry them as long as I want. But I feel as if my humanity is at its clearest and most vibrant.”
It is the system he is taking on now, not its symptoms. “You have to understand the institutions that are shaping and controlling people of color,” he says.
“Is your work a ministry?” I ask.
“I would not run from that description.”