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  • Well this is a really extraordinary honor for me.

  • I spend most of my time

  • in jails, in prisons, on death row.

  • I spend most of my time in very low-income communities

  • in the projects and places where there's a great deal of hopelessness.

  • And being here at TED

  • and seeing the stimulation, hearing it,

  • has been very, very energizing to me.

  • And one of the things that's emerged in my short time here

  • is that TED has an identity.

  • And you can actually say things here

  • that have impacts around the world.

  • And sometimes when it comes through TED,

  • it has meaning and power

  • that it doesn't have when it doesn't.

  • And I mention that because I think identity is really important.

  • And we've had some fantastic presentations.

  • And I think what we've learned

  • is that, if you're a teacher your words can be meaningful,

  • but if you're a compassionate teacher,

  • they can be especially meaningful.

  • If you're a doctor you can do some good things,

  • but if you're a caring doctor you can do some other things.

  • And so I want to talk about the power of identity.

  • And I didn't learn about this actually

  • practicing law and doing the work that I do.

  • I actually learned about this from my grandmother.

  • I grew up in a house

  • that was the traditional African American home

  • that was dominated by a matriarch,

  • and that matriarch was my grandmother.

  • She was tough, she was strong,

  • she was powerful.

  • She was the end of every argument in our family.

  • She was the beginning of a lot of arguments in our family.

  • She was the daughter of people who were actually enslaved.

  • Her parents were born in slavery in Virginia in the 1840's.

  • She was born in the 1880's

  • and the experience of slavery

  • very much shaped the way she saw the world.

  • And my grandmother was tough, but she was also loving.

  • When I would see her as a little boy,

  • she'd come up to me and she'd give me these hugs.

  • And she'd squeeze me so tight I could barely breathe

  • and then she'd let me go.

  • And an hour or two later, if I saw her,

  • she'd come over to me and she'd say, "Bryan, do you still feel me hugging you?"

  • And if I said, "No," she'd assault me again,

  • and if I said, "Yes," she'd leave me alone.

  • And she just had this quality

  • that you always wanted to be near her.

  • And the only challenge was that she had 10 children.

  • My mom was the youngest of her 10 kids.

  • And sometimes when I would go and spend time with her,

  • it would be difficult to get her time and attention.

  • My cousins would be running around everywhere.

  • And I remember, when I was about eight or nine years old,

  • waking up one morning, going into the living room,

  • and all of my cousins were running around.

  • And my grandmother was sitting across the room

  • staring at me.

  • And at first I thought we were playing a game.

  • And I would look at her and I'd smile,

  • but she was very serious.

  • And after about 15 or 20 minutes of this,

  • she got up and she came across the room

  • and she took me by the hand

  • and she said, "Come on, Bryan. You and I are going to have a talk."

  • And I remember this just like it happened yesterday.

  • I never will forget it.

  • She took me out back and she said, "Bryan, I'm going to tell you something,

  • but you don't tell anybody what I tell you."

  • I said, "Okay, Mama."

  • She said, "Now you make sure you don't do that." I said, "Sure."

  • Then she sat me down and she looked at me

  • and she said, "I want you to know

  • I've been watching you."

  • And she said, "I think you're special."

  • She said, "I think you can do anything you want to do."

  • I will never forget it.

  • And then she said, "I just need you to promise me three things, Bryan."

  • I said, "Okay, Mama."

  • She said, "The first thing I want you to promise me

  • is that you'll always love your mom."

  • She said, "That's my baby girl,

  • and you have to promise me now you'll always take care of her."

  • Well I adored my mom, so I said, "Yes, Mama. I'll do that."

  • Then she said, "The second thing I want you to promise me

  • is that you'll always do the right thing

  • even when the right thing is the hard thing."

  • And I thought about it and I said, "Yes, Mama. I'll do that."

  • Then finally she said, "The third thing I want you to promise me

  • is that you'll never drink alcohol."

  • (Laughter)

  • Well I was nine years old, so I said, "Yes, Mama. I'll do that."

  • I grew up in the country in the rural South,

  • and I have a brother a year older than me and a sister a year younger.

  • When I was about 14 or 15,

  • one day my brother came home and he had this six-pack of beer --

  • I don't know where he got it --

  • and he grabbed me and my sister and we went out in the woods.

  • And we were kind of just out there doing the stuff we crazily did.

  • And he had a sip of this beer and he gave some to my sister and she had some,

  • and they offered it to me.

  • I said, "No, no, no. That's okay. You all go ahead. I'm not going to have any beer."

  • My brother said, "Come on. We're doing this today; you always do what we do.

  • I had some, your sister had some. Have some beer."

  • I said, "No, I don't feel right about that. Y'all go ahead. Y'all go ahead."

  • And then my brother started staring at me.

  • He said, "What's wrong with you? Have some beer."

  • Then he looked at me real hard and he said,

  • "Oh, I hope you're not still hung up

  • on that conversation Mama had with you."

  • (Laughter)

  • I said, "Well, what are you talking about?"

  • He said, "Oh, Mama tells all the grandkids that they're special."

  • (Laughter)

  • I was devastated.

  • (Laughter)

  • And I'm going to admit something to you.

  • I'm going to tell you something I probably shouldn't.

  • I know this might be broadcast broadly.

  • But I'm 52 years old,

  • and I'm going to admit to you

  • that I've never had a drop of alcohol.

  • (Applause)

  • I don't say that because I think that's virtuous;

  • I say that because there is power in identity.

  • When we create the right kind of identity,

  • we can say things to the world around us

  • that they don't actually believe makes sense.

  • We can get them to do things

  • that they don't think they can do.

  • When I thought about my grandmother,

  • of course she would think all her grandkids were special.

  • My grandfather was in prison during prohibition.

  • My male uncles died of alcohol-related diseases.

  • And these were the things she thought we needed to commit to.

  • Well I've been trying to say something

  • about our criminal justice system.

  • This country is very different today

  • than it was 40 years ago.

  • In 1972, there were 300,000 people in jails and prisons.

  • Today, there are 2.3 million.

  • The United States now has the highest rate of incarceration

  • in the world.

  • We have seven million people on probation and parole.

  • And mass incarceration, in my judgment,

  • has fundamentally changed our world.

  • In poor communities, in communities of color

  • there is this despair,

  • there is this hopelessness,

  • that is being shaped by these outcomes.

  • One out of three black men

  • between the ages of 18 and 30

  • is in jail, in prison, on probation or parole.

  • In urban communities across this country --

  • Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington --

  • 50 to 60 percent of all young men of color are

  • in jail or prison or on probation or parole.

  • Our system isn't just being shaped

  • in these ways that seem to be distorting around race,

  • they're also distorted by poverty.

  • We have a system of justice in this country

  • that treats you much better

  • if you're rich and guilty than if you're poor and innocent.

  • Wealth, not culpability,

  • shapes outcomes.

  • And yet, we seem to be very comfortable.

  • The politics of fear and anger

  • have made us believe

  • that these are problems that are not our problems.

  • We've been disconnected.

  • It's interesting to me.

  • We're looking at some very interesting developments in our work.

  • My state of Alabama, like a number of states,

  • actually permanently disenfranchises you

  • if you have a criminal conviction.

  • Right now in Alabama

  • 34 percent of the black male population

  • has permanently lost the right to vote.

  • We're actually projecting in another 10 years

  • the level of disenfranchisement

  • will be as high as it's been

  • since prior to the passage of the Voting Rights Act.

  • And there is this stunning silence.

  • I represent children.

  • A lot of my clients are very young.

  • The United States is the only country in the world

  • where we sentence 13-year-old children

  • to die in prison.

  • We have life imprisonment without parole for kids in this country.

  • And we're actually doing some litigation.

  • The only country in the world.

  • I represent people on death row.

  • It's interesting, this question of the death penalty.

  • In many ways, we've been taught to think

  • that the real question is,

  • do people deserve to die for the crimes they've committed?

  • And that's a very sensible question.

  • But there's another way of thinking

  • about where we are in our identity.

  • The other way of thinking about it

  • is not, do people deserve to die for the crimes they commit,

  • but do we deserve to kill?

  • I mean, it's fascinating.

  • Death penalty in America is defined by error.

  • For every nine people who have been executed,

  • we've actually identified one innocent person

  • who's been exonerated and released from death row.

  • A kind of astonishing error rate --

  • one out of nine people innocent.

  • I mean, it's fascinating.

  • In aviation, we would never let people fly on airplanes

  • if for every nine planes that took off

  • one would crash.

  • But somehow we can insulate ourselves from this problem.

  • It's not our problem.

  • It's not our burden.

  • It's not our struggle.

  • I talk a lot about these issues.

  • I talk about race and this question

  • of whether we deserve to kill.

  • And it's interesting, when I teach my students about African American history,

  • I tell them about slavery.

  • I tell them about terrorism,

  • the era that began at the end of reconstruction

  • that went on to World War II.

  • We don't really know very much about it.

  • But for African Americans in this country,

  • that was an era defined by terror.

  • In many communities, people had to worry about being lynched.

  • They had to worry about being bombed.

  • It was the threat of terror that shaped their lives.

  • And these older people come up to me now

  • and they say, "Mr. Stevenson, you give talks, you make speeches,

  • you tell people to stop saying

  • we're dealing with terrorism for the first time in our nation's history

  • after 9/11."

  • They tell me to say, "No, tell them that we grew up with that."

  • And that era of terrorism, of course,

  • was followed by segregation

  • and decades of racial subordination

  • and apartheid.

  • And yet, we have in this country this dynamic

  • where we really don't like to talk about our problems.

  • We don't like to talk about our history.

  • And because of that, we really haven't understood

  • what it's meant to do the things we've done historically.

  • We're constantly running into each other.