In Pursuit Of Equal Justice

Bryan Stevenson

Sometimes you see someone so special that it literally takes your breath away.

Someone so brilliant and emotionally intelligent that their words stop you in their tracks and you are left changed by the experience.

That’s how I felt when I heard Bryan Stevenson speak recently at the annual meeting of Leadership Florida in Orlando.

Stevenson is the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative which is the subject of a new HBO documentary.

His work focuses on race and criminal justice reform and how we can inch our way toward a more perfect union.

We live in a society in which 1 in 3 African American males and 1 in 6 Latino men will end up incarcerated; a disturbing statistic that we somehow seem to accept. As if those lives are disposable. As if our nation can afford to throw these people away.

Stevenson wants us to chafe at these statistics.

It’s not that he wants us to feel bad or guilty.

In fact, he wants us to heal and feels that the only path to healing is facing what ails us as Americans.

Stevenson is a founder of the only museum dedicated to the history of lynching in America. It’s located in Montgomery, Alabama.

In fact, he was in Orlando to dedicate a marker at the site of a lynching in that city right here in our state.

By putting the issues front and center, Stevenson is hoping to spark a dialogue and a process that will ultimately lead to the airing of truths and a national reconciliation.

He fears what will happen to us if we don’t discuss these painful issues—slavery, bigotry, racism, violence. He believes it is keeping us apart.

Regardless of how you feel, it’s hard to deny that we have a racial divide in this country and in our own community.
Delray has a fraught relationship with race—Swinton has been a dividing line, we wrestle with issues of equity, trust, inequality and how to communicate.
I see it every day in Delray.

I feel it too.
I know I am not alone.

But I also know that many people  don’t feel the tension or have no interest in engaging.

But those who care about making a lasting difference should care. Because the divide holds us back and we are forever at risk of volatility if we ignore or pretend that these issues aren’t real or don’t exist. We will never reach our potential until we face up to what separates us.
So what we can do?

Stevenson suggests that we put ourselves where we typically refuse to venture.

The best part of Stevenson’s powerful message was his plea for people, especially those who seek to lead to get “proximate” to the issues in their communities.

Stevenson urges all of us to get close to the issues and get to know the most troubled parts of our community.

Proximity enables us to understand, empathize and eventually help.

Distance keeps us apart and does not allow for solutions to take root. It may even be wasteful since often we will prescribe the wrong solutions to community problems because we haven’t taken the time to get close to the suffering.

It may seem easier to turn away, but it’s not says Stevenson. The price we pay is too high—estrangement, anger, violence, division and a host of other ills.

As I watched Stevenson mesmerize a large crowd of experienced leaders, I couldn’t help but think that this is the kind of leadership we are missing in our cities and  inour country.
We need leaders who share, empathize and truly care to get close enough to understand, grow and evolve.

It takes an investment of time and heart. It takes a willingness to set aside preconceptions and open ourselves to possibilities and healing.
This not us versus them politics designed to keep us angry and apart. This is true inclusiveness, idealistic and human. It summons our better angels.

We can choose to remain angry, divided and sure of our positions from the safety of our couches and echo chambers or we can be “proximate” and learn to love thy neighbor.

It’s a simple choice. And an obvious one.


  1. I truly appreciate your message in this article.

    I have been on my own path to understanding the insidiousness of racism in our culture today. About 15 years ago, I was with some of my close friends from high school, and with whom I graduated, in 1977. One of us is a black man. I remember making a comment about how we were not taught to be racist and that I was proud that we were not of that ilk in high school. Vaughn looked at me like I had two heads. He was one of two black kids in our school of 2500 kids. He said, “I felt the racism every single day in high school” I was shocked.

    For the last 15 years I have been searching to understand his experience. As I look back on it now. I can see my own ignorance. of course I would not have felt the racism as a white person because it was aimed at black people. I never had to deal with it so I thought it didn’t exist. That conversation I had with Vaughn changed me. I was mortified that he had to suffer such subjugation as a way of life.

    I began to study what racism is and how it formed. I have followed the work of Dr. Jane Elliot, the creator of “Brown Eyes Vs Blue Eyes”. I have corresponded with her on several occasions. I read many books on the subject of racism. “White Fragility: Why its hard to talk to white people about racism” and “The Invention Of White People” are two books that have had a profound impact on me.

    I see the world differently now. I have come to know racism as an institutionalized, legislative system of oppression. White people don’t even question it. White people don’t even perceive it. We live in a world in which the color of our skin is considered “right”, no matter where we go. Brown skinned people are subjected daily to a multi faceted system which reminds them that they don’t belong and that their very existence in society is a stain and invalid. They are well aware of it. But we as white people, never feel the sting of this treatment, so we do not believe it exists. We think they are ungrateful and entitled when they try to tell us about it.

    In the 60’s racial language was used overtly. It was culturally acceptable to call a black man “boy” or a “nigger”. But when white people saw images on their brand new televisions of black people being knocked down with fire hoses, attacked by police dogs and beaten with batons, they were ashamed. “No respectable white Christian would do such a thing”. With the invention of the television, and the projection of these images, racism went underground. Racism became embedded into our laws and institutions. This way black people could still be put in their place and white people could continue to oppress and still be “good people”.

    I strongly believe that if we are to pierce the veil of racism we must go to where the ignorance lies, in “white people”. “White” isn’t even a race, it is an invention made by white men to keep us separate and superior. It worked, to the detriment of all, especially our black brothers and sisters. I don’t need to explain the many forms in which oppression has manifested in their lives; It is evident, but we can only imagine what it feels like.

    In order to know the most troubled parts of our community, you say we must lean-in to those who are suffering and know their pain. I agree fully. It is time for the movement of “Restitution” for black people in our culture. We need to be responsible, “able-to-respond” to their pain. But it begins with “white” people. We must educate ourselves. We must have compassion. We must reach out. It starts with us. We are the oppressors. Even in our ignorance…… we oppress.

    My question is, what are the actions of that “leaning in”?
    What are the forums?

    I remember years ago when I asked you about the divide between white and black people in our community. You said that you were making efforts in the Roots Festival that was to be held on the west end of Atlantic. (I think that was the name of it) I would have attended if I were in town but I wasn’t. I think there was only one festival if I am correct, It wasn’t visited well as planned.

    On another occasion I remember hearing that black people in Delray were not well represented within our local government because they did not show a cohesive interest to be involved in that way.

    From what I know now, the wounds are deep within the black culture. There is no trust. There is no reason to get involved in local government. And from their perspective maybe a block party thrown on their behalf is kind of a joke. I may be totally wrong here. These are just my impressions.

    The way I see it the effort needs to be a conversation generated in churches, town forums, people’s living rooms.
    It must begin with white people who are interested. Maybe it begins with a book club, who knows?

    I would not know where to begin with this. I don’t have one ounce experience in leading people in ideas that change our culture. I have been an observer up until now.

    But your letter sparked with something in me that has been growing for many years. And these days, I am beginning to think that my opinion is worth voicing.

    Thank you again for your letter Jeff

    Best regards,


    • Jeff Perlman says

      Anna, thanks for your beautiful comments. I admire the work you have done on this important subject. I think it starts with a personal journey of self exploration that you are clearly on. When I was an elected official we committed to a race relations process. We brought in experts, met and shared as a community and launched study circles. The effort was meant to be a long lasting commitment and I thought that if we put in the work and self analysis we might be able to make some progress. We had only just begun and I thought we were making some headway but sadly the effort didn’t outlast my term or the terms of those I served with who were equally committed to building a stronger community. Perhaps, in the future we can begin again. I do believe it is an essential mission. Again, thanks for your comments. I plan to return to them again and explore some of the works you referenced.

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