Jena 6: a black-and-white issue

Time alone doesn't remove racism. Only conscious effort does.

Something about the case of the "Jena 6" has sparked a rumbling within the black community. It's ironic, sadly, because there is an everyday sameness to what has happened. Consider: A racially provoked incident and a lackluster community response – same as ever. Extreme charges brought for less-than-spectacular alleged crimes – same as ever. An overzealous prosecutor, an inept defense attorney, an all-white jury, witnesses not called, a quick guilty verdict – same, same, same. Unfortunately, any of these elements is less than extraordinary in black American life.

Why do the Jena 6 resonate? How have they pierced the desensitizing barriers that black Americans use for everyday survival? What has driven thousands to travel to Jena, La., to protest? Perhaps it's the confluence of elements, how they mix together into a poisonous cocktail of injustice, that feels different. Or maybe it's less about what happened and more about the fact that it happened to our children.

The story of the Jena 6 is long and filled with stunning details. The basic points are these: In the predominantly white town of Jena, La., white students hung three nooses last September after black students sat under a schoolyard tree where white students normally congregated. The white students were suspended for three days. After black students protested peacefully, the La Salle Parish district attorney threatened them, saying, "I can make your life go away with a stroke of a pen." Eventually there was a schoolyard fight in which a white student was beaten; he was treated for a concussion and multiple bruises. Although the student was well enough to attend a school function the same evening, six black boys between the ages of 15 and 17 were arrested, five of whom were charged as adults with attempted murder and conspiracy. The sixth student was charged as a juvenile.

Some in mainstream America may think that blacks feel vindicated or satisfied by tales of racism such as this one, since America often lives in denial about racism and racial inequality. On the contrary, for black Americans to hear of the Jena 6 is to feel as though the color has been washed out of our lives, that we are suddenly watching ourselves in grainy black-and-white footage of the Jim Crow South. Our vulnerabilities are laid bare before all the world; a school fight can cost our children their lives, and it can happen without America giving so much as a second look.

Mainstream media outlets long ignored the Jena 6 or gave the case cursory summations. Their silence shows how mainstream journalists remain unwilling to tackle the issue of race. At best, racism is addressed when it is overt and simplistic. Mix in the institutionalized racism of a town's criminal justice system, and journalists' eyes glaze over. When what happened in Jena has been reported, the media's language has been tepid. It presumes a legitimacy to both sides. Yet there is nothing balanced or fair about what is happening to these boys. Black Americans crave the same outrage the media rained down on Michael Vick for his unjustified abuse of dogs.

The comments of bloggers, black journalists, and radio personalities, along with forwarded e-mail and demonstrations, have generated pressure that has resulted in new lawyers for the Jena 6 and a reduction in the charges against them. Just days before sentencing, a state appeals court overturned the conviction of Mychal Bell, the only student yet tried. But future court battles loom.

And nothing changes a heartbreaking truth about Jena: that some children in 2007 look unnervingly similar to their close-minded forefathers – nooses and all. Perhaps America has left too much undone, become too complacent. Racism and its manifestations do not get better with time, and we can't presume that one generation will be more conscious than the last. Racism is removed by conscious effort and continuous work. Is America willing to rise to the occasion?

Amina Luqman is a freelance writer based in Virginia. ©2007 The Washington Post.

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