Most Americans probably know a whole lot more about Britney Spears’ belly than the travesty of justice that’s been going on in Jena, Louisiana. Mainstream media know that there’s big bucks in touting scenes of celebrity shame but little commercial gain in headline news about the shame of racism. So, while we’re bombarded with Britney’s anatomical photos on the front pages of print and digital media, we have to search for news about the Jena 6 buried well into the middle of the paper (page 6 in today’s Washington Post) or found only through search engines.
The “Jena 6” are a group of African American high school students facing serious charges resulting from a school fight. The six Black students are accused of beating a White student (but there’s much more to the story, see below). The local prosecutor brought very serious charges against the Black students — charges of second degree attempted murder and conspiracy, charges that come with very long prison sentences that many protesters believe are hugely disproportionate to the actual incident. An all-White jury convicted one of the accused students of aggravated assault and conspiracy, but just yesterday a Louisiana Appeals Court threw out that conviction on the grounds that the young man, who was 16 years old at the time of the incident, should not have been tried as an adult.
I happened to hear about this case on late night news, and found myself wondering why I didn’t hear more about it at a much earlier time. Searching in the Washington Post I found a story published on a Saturday in August — on page 3 — a day and placement not likely to get much attention. The story is well worth reading.
The fight that led to the arrests of the young Black men came after a stunning incident at their school in which three nooses were found hanging from a tree — a location known as the “white tree” because only White students sat under the tree. The nooses appeared after an African American student sat under the “white tree.” The principal imposed a three-day suspension on the three White students who hung the nooses. The Post article also reports that the school then cut the tree down (Huh? As if the tree were responsible? I’m still trying to figure that one out.) Racial tensions increased, various incidents took place, among which was the fight that led to serious charges against the six Black students, charges that many people feel are also a result of racial injustice because the charges are disproportionate to what the students actually did.
Now, before anyone says, “Well, that’s the South,” or “Well, yes, in some remote places racism still occurs,” consider what happened just last week at the University of Maryland at College Park. A noose was found hanging from a tree outside of the Nyumburu Cultural Center (“Freedom House” in Swahili), also home to the Black Student Union and Black Explosion student newspaper. Some students at Maryland feel the noose was placed to intimidate them because of their support for the Jena 6.
The symbolism of the noose — in Jena, in College Park, or anywhere in this nation — recollects the days of overt racial violence, the lynchings and assaults on African Americans perpetrated by the KKK and other groups and individuals devoted to segregation and subjugation of other human beings on the basis of race. The noose is a tragic reminder of the long, tortured and still-painful history and present reality of race relations in this nation.
On another college campus last week, at the University of Virginia, a student newspaper cartoonist was fired for depicting Ethiopians as savage cariacatures dressed in loincloths. He claims that he was trying to make a serious statement about famine in Africa, but what he really made a loud statement about was his woefully ignorant cultural frame of reference, a problem shared by too many younger Americans whose knowledge of the great battles for civil rights and justice in this nation only come from history books (at that).
At the most superficial daily levels, our culture tends to pretend that all of the great battles for civil rights, women’s rights, human rights are largely won in this nation, that we do have equality for all, that discrimination and oppression on the basis of race, gender, religion or national origin are things of the past. The long shadow of the nooses in the schoolyards tells reminds us that racism remains the great American shame, that justice remains elusive.
On Monday, September 17, by order of Congress every college campus in the nation must observe Constitution Day. Here at Trinity, we will once again post the Bill of Rights on the Marble Corridor, and I would like to post comments from the Trinity Community on this blog all week about issues of civil rights and racial justice. Please send your comments in an email to me — firstname.lastname@example.org — or send a comment by clicking on the envelope icon below. Let me know if it’s ok to quote you.
See NAACP Statement
See Democracy Now website
See “jENA 6”
See Howard University news
See University of Maryland statement