Son of Jim Crow in Jena

Today's racism is more subtle than in the days of Selma and Jim Crow, as the case of the Jena 6 shows.

The tens of thousands who marched 12-across and a mile deep to protest racial injustice in Jena last week have gone home. So have the media. One of the biggest civil rights demonstrations in America in decades is over. Now what?

The story of racism in the United States is not over. And it is not over in the two-stoplight town in Louisiana, which is 85 percent white. Law enforcement has stepped up patrols in Jena because of recent threats to the six young African Americans – the Jena 6 – and to the white schoolmate whom the young men are charged with attacking.

But today's racism is not as uniformly blatant, brutal, or ubiquitous as before and during the civil rights movement of the 1950s and '60s. Jena can't be likened to Selma, as the Revs. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton do. But Mr. Sharpton gets it right when he says: "Our fathers faced Jim Crow, we face James Crow Jr., Esquire. He's a little more polished."

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And more subtle, which means that if there is to be a lasting movement out of last week, it must recognize this subtlety. This is true for both blacks and whites.

The Jena story is tinged with subtle shades of gray, but the telling of it has been mostly high contrast: nooses hung from a "whites only" shade tree at the high school; then interracial fights, culminating in six black students beating a white student to the point of unconsciousness and hospitalization (he was released later that day and attended a school function).

In these fights, whites got the equivalent of a legal slap on the wrist, while the six were initially charged with attempted murder.

No wonder black blogs, e-mail, and talk radio flowed with outrage. This kind of prosecutor overreach strikes a chord in black America, and should with people of all races. Jena flashes a warning of unequal treatment under the law. Black youths, for instance, are 2.5 times more likely to be arrested for using drugs than whites, even though whites are more likely to use drugs.

Thankfully, the charges were reduced, and the six got proper legal representation. The conviction of one of them – Mychal Bell – was overturned because he was tried as an adult, not a juvenile.

The obvious message of racial injustice has galvanized black America, especially young people. How refreshing and promising to see such participation last week.

To grow, a new civil rights movement must define its own agenda and work town by town (not so easy when the issues are often societal and about the application of the law than the law itself).

It must also honestly face some of those gray spots about Jena – the most important being the culpability of the six in mob violence. Mr. Bell has a record of previous battery. Violence must be condemned – because it's simply not right and because glossing over it undermines the protesters' credibility.

As for whites, the Jena violence and prosecution could very well have been avoided had school authorities dealt more substantively and sensitively with the tree-and-noose issue. Instead, the school superintendent dismissed it as a "prank," a widely held view in the town, according to news reports.

Eddie Thompson, a white minister in Jena, says whites must listen to blacks and follow the golden rule. Listening and responding, that's a good place to start with whatever comes next, in Jena and elsewhere. •

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