(March 7, 2015) I have been fairly deliberate in my decision to not write about Serena Williams returning to Indian Wells for the BNP Paribas Open in March. After a 14-year boycott of the tournament, which cost her ranking points and prize monies, Serena Williams announced her return in a statement via Time magazine.
After much reflection, I waded into Serena’s return by focusing on the most intriguing aspect, her decision to highlight the work of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), a private, nonprofit organization that provides legal representation to indigent defendants and prisoners who have been denied fair and just treatment in the legal system. With the Omaze campaign, Serena Williams will allow one lucky contest winner to be seated as a VIP in her box during her opening match at the BNP Paribas Open and the money raised through the contest entries (donations less campaign expenses and platform fees) will then be delivered to EJI.
Curious to understand why Serena Williams reached out to EJI, I spoke with its founder and executive director, Bryan Stevenson. Mr. Stevenson has won national acclaim for his work challenging bias against the poor and people of color in the criminal justice system. Since graduating from Harvard Law School and the Harvard School of Government, he has assisted in securing relief for dozens of condemned prisoners, advocated for poor people and developed community-based reform litigation aimed at improving the administration of criminal justice. He also is on the law faculty at New York University School of Law.
Andreen Soley: Thank you for agreeing to talk with me:
Bryan Stevenson: I was happy to get your inquiry. I am really happy to talk about what Serena is doing because I’m really, really energized by her decision to do this. It’s just so remarkable because she reached out to us. She has been incredibly enthusiastic about educating people about the work that we do and drawing attention to the context of what happened to her. There is a narrative behind these incidents that we don’t talk about in this country. We tend to think it’s one person here or one person there. But the truth is we have a history of racial inequality and racial bias that manifests itself all the time in our society. If we don’t start talking about that history and the narrative of racial difference that continues to haunt all of us, we are not going to make the progress that we want to make. You can be the best tennis player the world has ever seen, or the greatest golfer or the greatest basketball player, but you are not going to overcome that narrative of racial difference until you create some space to talk honestly about these issues that too many people try to ignore. I’m super proud of her and thrilled that she made a choice to try to do that by partnering with us on this project.
AS: What do you see as the natural link between what happened to Serena Williams and what you do every day at EJI?
BS: We have this history of racial inequality that began with slavery in this country. The true evil of slavery wasn’t involuntary servitude, it was this ideology of white supremacy. This idea that Black people are different, that they are not as smart, that they are not as hard working, that they have these character deficits. In many ways, the 13th amendment didn’t deal with the true evil which was that narrative. In my opinion, slavery didn’t end in 1865, it evolved. It turned into this era where people were constantly trying to legitimate racial hierarchy. They use terror and violence and menace and segregation and Jim Crow laws to maintain this lie.
Whenever an athlete would do something exceptional to complicate that narrative, people would get confused. So, when Joe Johnson or Joe Louis began to have success as fighters and Jesse Owens had his success, it really complicated the narrative for a lot of people. There was always this ambivalence about how much you can applaud them. We were grateful that Owens won gold medals in Berlin because the Nazis were emerging as the bigger threat than African-Americans in this country. Yet, there was not uniform enthusiasm for his success. You see that throughout the 50s and when Jackie Robinson breaks the color line, we celebrate his courage. But the truth is people still held on to this narrative of racial differences even as these athletes were showing that they were every bit as talented and capable of succeeding as white athletes. That narrative of racial differences still haunts us and that’s one of the reasons why we have a criminal justice system that presumes too many young people of color are dangerous and guilty. It’s how too many people are wrongly convicted.
Our work [at EJI] is really trying to confront the consequences of a presumption of dangerousness and guilt that is a feature of our failure to talk more honestly about our history. I think what Serena encountered at Indian Wells was precisely that same presumption of guilt. People could not accept that anything she said or did about her play was honest or legitimate because this presumption that she is not like everybody else was all out there. People have gotten comfortable in this country, giving voice to that, unfairly in words that are racially biased and loaded and hurtful. In many ways tolerating the kind of racial bigotry that she experienced is unacceptable. But it is equally unacceptable in our criminal justice system where it is often tolerated because there is a presumption that the person committed the crime and therefore, we don’t have to worry about whether they are being discriminated against on the basis of race. There is probably no part of American society where race matters more than in the criminal justice system.
Ultimately, as a tennis player, you can, if you have got the right character, courage and heart, which Serena has, you can overcome, you can win and then people will have to eventually shift. That’s not true [in other places]. When someone has won and they choose to shed light on the people who are in situations and structures where they don’t have the opportunity to keep playing and win, I think that speaks powerfully about the importance of this issue. The Bureau of Justice reports that 1 in 3 Black male babies born in the US is expected to go to prison in his lifetime. That was not true in the 20th or the 19th century. That became true in the 21st century.
We have so many Black athletes in this society who have succeeded, who have accomplished extraordinary things and as result of that have platforms from which they can speak to a whole range of issues. It’s often disheartening that so few give voice to these larger societal issues. I know many of them are painfully aware that but for their exceptional athletic ability, they’d be confronting these realities in the ways that many of my clients do.
I do think it’s incredibly inspiring that an athlete stands up and says, I was the victim of unfair racial bias and bigotry and prejudice. I’ve overcome. I’m going back here to play, but I want us to talk about this continuing problem of racial bias and bigotry. Even if it doesn’t directly keep me from doing what I have to, it’s burdening too many people in our society. I think that’s a really important story to tell.
AS: For the individual tennis fan who comes to your work because they watch Serena Williams and have seen the campaign on Omaze, what do you hope will happen for that individual?
BS: I hope that they will go to our website and get our calendar on racial history which is a tool to help them each day of each week of each month learn more about how and why Serena found herself in the situation she was in the last time she was at Indian Wells. If they understand that more, then they will understand what it takes to overcome that, to confront that. Confronting racial bias and racial inequality requires some proximity, it requires us getting closer to these issues; it requires us to understand this history, it requires us to be hopeful about what we can do. Sometimes it requires us to do something that is uncomfortable, which is to speak to these issues when we see them and too few people said anything when these taunts and slurs were being directed at Serena. It was the Indian Wells community that should have intervened on her behalf in a way that was unmistakably clear that that kind of behavior was not only unacceptable but was something that could never ever be tolerated. That didn’t happen in the way I think it could have or should have. We’d like to hope that it will happen moving forward. It got attention because it was a professional tennis tournament in a setting that is highly scrutinized. It happens too often in athletic venues all across this country, in police departments, on college campuses. It happens in a lot of spaces where people who follow tennis and who admire Serena need to be prepared to stand up and to confront that kind of bias. I hope that the tennis fans who enjoy watching Serena will also engage on these issues and educate themselves and be part of this movement to confront bias and bigotry and racial prejudice whenever and wherever they encounter it.
AS: What often happens and I think it happened in Indian Wells is a kind of blaming of the individual or making it a wholly an individual issue or a personality issue. In your mind, what is the community’s role? You say that the Indian Wells community had a role to play, what do you envision for Indian Wells and other places in America?
BS: The problem that we see in this country is that [these actions] are tolerated. We have got to be vocal. Obviously, this is not my role but a tournament that experiences that kind of problem needs to be celebrating in a very visible and active way the accomplishments of African-American tennis players as a teaching tool to people in that community. I’d distribute a little program that talks about all the extraordinary African-American women who broke the color barriers and how hard it was. If they reached out to us and said they wanted our calendar to distribute to everyone who comes to the tournament, we’d make them available. I think the challenge for sport and venues is to find ways to promote an understanding of the need to be aware of how our presumptions of dangerousness, guilt and the narrative of racial differences sometimes cause us to say and do things that are unfair and unjust.
AS: In Serena Williams’s statement she said: “I’m fortunate to be at a point in my career where I have nothing to prove. I’m still as driven as ever, but the ride is a little easier. I play for the love of the game. And it is with that love in mind, and a new understanding of the true meaning of forgiveness, that I will proudly return to Indian Wells in 2015.” I have seen similar language in the way that you talk about your work. Can you talk about forgiveness which I think is a valuable thing but not in the kind of namby-pamby way people usually talk about forgiveness?
BS: I think that we really want the society to move forward because many families of color want their children to be less burdened by this presumption of guilt than they have been. The only way we are going to do that is by talking about it. To be truthful, I see this as work that is not designed to help African-Americans but is designed to help everybody. We have a generation of people in this country that were taught by people they love that they are better than other people of their skin color. They didn’t see the kind of evidence to contradict that because they live their lives in segregated and isolated spaces. White people who were taught that, who have learned that and who have had that message reinforced have been injured by that lie. Because it is a lie! We have got to help them recover just like we need people of color to recover from the trauma and the victimization that comes from some of those lies. In order to create a healthy community and a healthier society, we need everybody to move forward on this. I think that is how you get to a different place.
Andreen Soley currently works as an education consultant/grant writer for a Los Angeles non-profit and university. She writes about tennis and solo female travel at her personal website: http://soleytennistravels.com/