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Jena incident highlights racism in U.S.

Published: September 7, 2007
Section: Opinions


About a year ago, on a particularly hot day in the small Louisiana town of Jena, a student named Justin Purvis asked if he could sit in the shade of a tree in the schoolyard at Jena High School. This modest request was not merely another example of the Byzantine politics of high school cliques, because this particular tree was universally referred to as the white tree and it was an unwritten rule of Jenas racial politics that people who look like Purvis are not welcome.

Purvis transgression did not go unnoticed. The next day, three nooses hung from a branch of the tree. Uncowed by this act of racist intimidation, the black students of Jena High School held a spontaneous nonviolent protest underneath the white tree several days later. School officials were shocked by the students courageous display of resistance and responded by calling the police and the District Attorney. Later that day, the DA Reed Walters, flanked by armed guards, addressed the students, warning that, I can end your lives with the stroke of a pen. Since that day, Walters has done his best to keep this promise, and in so doing has unleashed one of the most shocking displays of racial injustice in recent memory.

Walters got his chance last December when a white student named Justin Barker was assaulted by six young black men. Reed arrested six of the students who protested at the white tree and charged them with attempted murder and conspiracy. The evidence against these teenagers is more or less non-existant. The police took 44 wildly contradictory statements from witnesses, none of whom could agree on the identities of Barkers attackers. In fact, the only thing the witness could agree on is the race of Barkers attackers. Barker himself went to the hospital for a concussion;

he was released after two hours and attended a school function the night of the attack. Despite the paucity of evidence against the Jena Six, the first of their number, Mychal Bell has already been convicted by an all-white jury in a trial which lasted less than two days.

The troubling odyssey of the Jena Six demonstrates the two distinct but interrelated types of racism in our society and how these racisms can work in concert confirming and reinforcing one another. The first brand of racism is the repressive racism of which many are familiar, a violent and prejudicial racism, the racism of Bull Connor, of racial slurs, and of Philadelphia, Mississippi. It is a racism that many of us would like to believe weve put behind us. Then we have the more insidious, more surreptitious institutional or structural racism which Stokely Carmichael once defined as the collective failure of an organization to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their color, culture or ethnic origin. This latter form of racism often comes cloaked in the language of equality;

the proponents of this racism will argue that we create a colorblind society, to wit: a society which is blind to the grossly unequal social conditions that racial and ethnic minorities face and carries on as though we all had an equal opportunity.

This battle of Jena provides an excellent example of these two forms of racism working together. The more forward, nooses provoked protest from Jena Highs black students, then our farcical justice system swoops in to condemn the youths to long prison sentences. Bells public defender is a poster boy for structural racism. The lawyer pressured Bell to take a plea bargain, and when Bell refused to admit to a crime he didnt commit, the lawyer was so furious that he abrogated his duty and did not even prepare a case for his client;

he called not a single witness.

For the most part, the Jena white community has been in nonsensical denial. A resident named Barbara Murphy told a report, We dont have a race problem . . . The nooses? I dont even know why they were there, what they were supposed to mean . . . it just didnt seem to be racist to me. Nooses hanging from trees may not seem racist to Murphy, but they should seem racist to anyone with even a cursory knowledge of American history, or an acquaintance with the recording catalogue of Billie Holiday.

Despite this widespread denial, we have also in Jena a portrait of dignified resistance. The accused students, their parents, and a growing movement in Jena and across the country are fighting against this uncontainable injustice. Id encourage everyone to visit the website of the Jena Six at www.freethejena6.org where you can contribute to the defense fund for the five students awaiting trial, find out how to write Governor Kathleen Blanco and the Jena DA Reed Walters, and, if you have the time and money, travel to the protest in Jena scheduled on September 20th.