In the wake of George Floyd’s death, I’ve made it a point to better educate myself about the injustices experienced by Black, Indigenous and People of Color in the US. There is a long history of systemic racism in our country, some of which I was aware of and some I wasn’t. And, if I am going to be an advocate for change and a participant in change, I must be more educated about the societal structures that have allowed these injustices to continue. So, I’m reading, watching and listening. A friend recommended the movie, Just Mercy, which was adapted from Bryan Stevenson’s book of the same name.

Just Mercy tells about the real-life experiences of the author, a Black public interest lawyer in Alabama and the founder and director of the Equal Justice Initiative, who has dedicated his career to helping the poor and incarcerated —and, specifically, those on death row. It highlights the mass incarceration in America and how the justice system often treats the rich and guilty better than the poor and innocent. Most of all, Just Mercy shares how the potential for mercy can redeem us. The movie was powerful on many levels. Here are three important things I learned from it:

#1: The most vulnerable in our society are susceptible to incarceration.

Black people, the poor, youth, veterans and the mentally ill are disproportionately represented in prison populations. For example:

  • 1 out of 3 Black men (ages 18-30) are in jail, prison, on probation or parole.
  • Over 50% of U.S. inmates have a diagnosed mental illness.

These outcomes are creating despair and hopelessness among the poorer communities in our country. It’s also contributing to negative health outcomes. According to a article, compared to the general population men and women with a history of incarceration have worse mental and physical health outcomes. Additionally, studies have shown that prison inmates of both genders are more likely to have high blood pressure, asthma, cancer, arthritis and infectious diseases, such as tuberculosis, hepatitis C and HIV.

#2. There is not an easy solution.

Racism exists in so many of our societal systems: education, law, healthcare, employment, finance, politics and justice— it’s everywhere. Solutions must be multi-faceted. For example, through the Equal Justice Initiative, Stevenson focuses not only on criminal justice reform, but also on racial justice and public education.

What should FSSA do to address systemic racism? The road to justice is long and requires continuous learning and sustained commitment. We can be inspired by Stevenson, who often worked for years to free a client, spending hundreds of hours on one case. Because of his tenacity and determination, he has won relief for hundreds of people on death row who were wrongly convicted or unfairly sentenced. 

#3. Just Mercy reminds us of the power of identity and perspective.

In the movie, we see Stevenson learning about his clients and their stories and being open to what it teaches him about himself. We are reminded that none of us are perfect.

There’s a great quote in the movie about character: “The true measure of our character is how we treat the poor, the disfavored, the accused, the incarcerated and the condemned.” I believe each one of us can make a difference if we’re willing to grow personally and take steps to change deep-rooted systems of injustice.

Promotional image – Warner Bros. Pictures

About Social Structures

Social structures can dictate the systems and rules we all live under. And when inequity or implicit bias exists in these systems, it can have negative ramifications. The impact can be broad as well as personal, directly effecting our neighborhoods and communities, as well as the overall health and well-being of individuals. Examples of this can be seen in health care, education, the legal system and judicial process, and even social classes. When bias exists within these systems, it can be difficult to ensure a just outcome for all.