It's hard to believe that here we are in the 21st century, living in a progressive, supposedly civilized nation, and yet racism still runs rampant in many parts of this great country we call the United States of America. Small, provincial minds still harbour deep hatred for those who are different, finding it virtually impossible to live integrated and harmonious lives with people of different skin colours.
It's never been more obvious than in Jena, Louisiana where 6 young black teens face up to 80 years in jail for a school yard brawl that has deepened the racial divide, and was precipitated, to begin with, by racism.
Although the actual details vary, according to different sources here, here, here, and here, what we do know is that predominately white Jena High School, in Jena Louisiana, still practices (unofficially) segregation. There was a shady tree (now burned down) known as the "whites tree" because it was (unofficially) off limits to blacks. It seems that blacks and whites at Jena High School don't integrate. The whites congregated under the "whites tree" and the African American students would gather elsewhere. Sometime late August or early September, 2006 during a school assembly, one or more black students decided to challenge the status quo and asked the Principal if they too could sit under the tree. The response was that they could "sit wherever they wanted."
The next morning 3 nooses were found suspended from the tree, although it's unclear whether this happened prior to or after the black students happened to exercise what was rightfully theirs to do. The Principal of Jena High School recommended the 3 white students responsible be expelled, but Superintendent Roy Breithaupt (and the Board of Education) chose to suspend the culprits for a mere 3 days, claiming it was just a childish prank. This, of course, angered the black community and set into motion a series of events which eventually led to the beating of a white boy and the reason the Jena 6 are on trial.
It's important to follow the series of events to recognize that this case is truly an example of the racial inequality in our justice system.
First of all hanging nooses on trees is not an adolescent prank, as Breithaupt intimates, it's as much a hate crime as burning crosses on lawns or painting swastikas on Synagogues. These children need to know it is not okay to do things like that, and that they will be punished for flagrant racist actions. They should have been expelled, or at least suspended for a much longer period of time. Perhaps this would have lessened the tensions between whites and blacks that ensued after the the 3 day in-school suspension was meted out.
As far as I can cobble together from the various sources linked above this is what happened:
Fall of 2006: As tension mounts, fights erupt between black and white students at Jena High school. Unknown arsonists set fire to the campus in November, both sides blame each other. A black student, Robert Bailey, trying to enter an off-campus, all-white party is beaten up by a white male. Bailey claims he was hit on the head with a beer bottle. Justin Sloan is charged with battery and placed on probation. Several days later, at a convenience store, a young white male (who was at the party) pulls a rifle on 3 black students(including Bailey). The gun is wrestled away from the white male and Bailey takes the gun home. Their stories contradict each other but, ultimately, Bailey is the one charged with theft of a firearm, disturbing the peace and 2nd-degree robbery. The white male who pulled the gun on the black youths- gets nothing!
December 4, 2006: Again, the details are sketchy and vary, but it appears that 17-year old Justin Barker (white) is beaten by a group of black students (including Bailey) after Barker, earlier that day, allegedly taunted Bailey for having been beaten up at the party. Barker was left unconscious with some cuts, bruises and a swollen eye, but was well enough to be released from the hospital after only a few hours, and able to attend a school function later that evening.
The Six Students: Robert Bailey, Jr. (17), Mychal Bell (16), Carwin Jones (18), Bryant Purvis (17) and Theo Shaw (17). 14 year old Jesse Ray Beard is the only one being charged as a juvenile, the others are being charged as adults, and the D.A. upped the assault charges to attempted 2nd degree murder!
What I find appalling about this whole situation is:
1. That the kids had to even ask for permission to sit under that tree.
2. None of the white's involved in any of the altercations received punishment appropriate to the crime, and some received none at all.
3. The black teens are being charged with attempted 2nd-degree murder which is a blatant and gross miscarriage of justice.
I will be the first to dismiss the 'race-card', but in this case, no way. This is not fair, by any means.
It just demonstrates how racism still exists not just in rural Louisiana but in our justice system, as well, and when young lives hang in the balance, this is not right.
First of all, why are schools still segregated in that way? It's not like we speak 2 different languages. You might not be able to change how families pass down, from generation to generation, their biases and prejudices, but we can do something about it in our schools. I think we should insitute some kind of race relations workshops and classes in the school systems, this way we can teach our kids how to get along with others. Their futures (and ours) depend on that.
Photo Credit above: StrangeFruit- lynching of Rubin Stacy 7/19/1935 Ft. Lauderdale, FL. Click on link for story.