New School Racism: Jena and Beyond

Once upon a time there was a tree, beautiful and broad, the kind of tree perfect for sitting under when shade is scarce in the deep South. A group of boys -- strapping, white, proud -- called this tree their own; they defended against the intrusion of "others" by hanging three nooses from the tree's arching branches. Violence ensued. Injustice reigned.

In the time of Obama fanaticism and everything "melting pot," this story sounds like an ancient proverb, or at the very least, a shameful Jim Crow–era memory. Students might look for it alongside Emmett Till in their American history books. Teachers giving their lesson on that most vague and unhelpful of politically correct notions -- "tolerance" -- might ask students to reflect on how very far we've come.

But, in fact, it turns out that some of us have not come so very far at all. This story is neither an ancient proverb nor a Jim Crow–era memory. It is happening right now in Jena, Louisiana, a town of 3,000 which is predominantly white.

The facts: A group of black students at Jena High School asked an administrator if they had permission to sit under a tree where white students normally sat (I know, already, things sound frighteningly pre–civil rights). The administrator reportedly told them they were free to sit where they liked, but when they went to the tree the next day -- Sept. 1, 2006 -- they found three nooses hanging from the branches. The superintendent of schools dismissed the three students who hung the nooses as mere pranksters, giving them a three-day suspension.

When black students protested under the tree on Wednesday, Sept. 6, 2006, a school assembly was hastily convened. Surrounded by police officers, District Attorney Reed Walters warned black students against causing any more trouble, and, according to multiple witnesses, said, "I can make your lives disappear with a stroke of my pen."

Unsurprisingly, a series of fights between black and white students followed -- culminating on Dec. 4, when a group of six black students allegedly jumped a white student, knocking him unconscious. The victim, who the alleged attackers report taunted black students on campus continuously -- spent a few hours in the hospital and was released.

All six were initially charged with attempted murder, but under pressure from outraged, anti-racist advocates, all charges have been reduced to aggravated battery and conspiracy to commit aggravated battery. Most recently, one of the convicted young men, Mychel Bell, had his sentence overturned. He will, mostly likely, face charges in juvenile court; he is still being held in custody.

A rally, led by the Revs. Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson, will take place today. Activists are calling for, among other things, a full investigation by the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department. Some estimate that there will be as many as 40,000 protestors descending on tiny Jena. The Rev. Jackson told reporters: "Jena is just a DNA sample of what's happening around the country."

Indeed, the Jena 6 case, like the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, is a violent reminder that our country is actually many nations. Despite all of the progress that has been made, racism is still a part of too many American kids' ideological diets. A noose, even in 2007, struck these good ol' Southern boys as an apt symbol for the fear of "the other" that had been bred in them from birth. And their elders -- the school administrators, city officials, and parents -- called their inexcusable hatred by cutesy names: pranks, child's play, boys will be boys. It is a wake-up call to us all: The work of ending racism is far from over.

The enduring white-brown-black, urban-rural, Northern-Southern, rich-poor divides are exposed here -- abysses that keep America from truly realizing its dream of equality for all. For those of us who live in urban centers where ethnic segregation, while common, at least appears self-imposed, the idea of a modern day "whites only" drinking fountain is shocking.

But our shock only further proves our denial. The children of Northeastern privilege go to Ivy League or small liberal arts schools, take courses in African American history, and pat each other on the back for knowing a few financial aid-strapped immigrant upstarts, while Southern frat boys beat their chests at the big game and remember their black nannies with patronizing fondness, though they would never bring a black girl home. This is our America. It is a place where overt racism -- like the kind we are seeing displayed so dramatically in Jena -- has mostly died out (at least publicly), but the complex dynamics of opportunities, relationships, and power still play out along an often denied, though undeniable, color line.

Just consider some of the statistics. According to Human Rights Watch, one in 10 black men in their 20s and early 30s is in jail or prison. Thirteen percent of the black adult male population has lost the right to vote because of felony disenfranchisement. The nationwide college graduation rate for black students is a pathetic 43 percent, according to the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, a full 20 percent lower than that for white students. According to sociologist Dalton Conley, the average black family has only one-eighth the net worth of the average white family. Taken together, these discrepancies paint a grim picture of the enduring gap -- culturally, economically, psychologically -- between the lives of black and white youth in this country.

Oprah and Obama and all of our other favorite symbols of racism's extinction are, indeed, great models, but the complacent feelings they produce are just our own self-aggrandizing mirages. This country is still profoundly divided by race and class. Bravo to those who are heading down to Jena to demand justice for these six teenagers. As Martin Luther King Jr. said of an earlier time, "Our only hope today lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit and go into a sometimes hostile world declaring eternal hostility to poverty, racism, and militarism."

If Jena's not hostile, I don't know what is. Marching and doing media outreach to call attention to this issue is a great first step. But it is not the step.

The Jena 6 case -- like that of Sean Bell, like the response to Hurricane Katrina, like the Rockefeller Laws (and on and on …) -- needs to be put into the context of the vast and critical work ahead. Too often these sparks of awareness and anger are doused by the demands of another day, another dollar. Instead of prompting the large-scale honesty needed in this country, these injustices are smoothed over with too little, too late press releases and symbolic but ultimately empty gestures of reconciliation.

Not this time. Let's demand more than a little retroactive justice and diversity training for the students and staff of Jena High School. Let's demand radical transformation. It's not just the good ol' Southern boys who got a problem. It is all of us.

Sometimes it takes something as old school as a few nooses hanging in a tree to remind us that we are not so very new school after all.