q&a / justice

Bryan Stevenson Explains How It Feels To Grow Up Black Amid Confederate Monuments

"I think we have to increase our shame — and I don't think shame is a bad thing."
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Ezra Klein
You often say that “the opposite of poverty is not wealth. The opposite of poverty is justice.” What do you mean by that?

Bryan Stevenson
The wealth of the colonies was built on genocide of removing Native Americans from lands that they occupied. We kept their names, but we made them leave. We didn’t really acknowledge the injustice of that because we were persuaded that our economic security and our political development require the acquisition of these lands. It began this way of thinking about wealth that is disconnected from the oppression that is sometimes used to create that wealth. And that habit was reinforced through slavery.

We created great wealth in new territories in the south and the colonies by relying on enslaved people and the labor and the benefits that that created without any real thinking about how that wealth was sustained by abuse and oppression and inequality and injustice.

This idea has emerged in America that wealth is created by people with great talent and great ability. We value wealth. We respect wealth. We admire wealth. We disdain the poor. We blame the poor. We fault the poor for not achieving more economic security.

For me, it's important to redefine what it is we are dealing with when we deal with poverty, and that definition begins with recognizing that the opposite of poverty isn't wealth. The opposite of poverty is justice. If we actually had been just to those communities that we removed from the land, if we had been just to the formally enslaved, if we'd been just to immigrants who came and gave great wealth, we would actually be in a very different place when it comes to dealing with structural poverty.
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