This much is certain: the state of Louisiana needs our prayers. Even as the folks of New Orleans continue to dig themselves out of Katrina’s muddy mess, the small town of Jena has captured our nation’s attention and imagination by reminding us that the racial tensions and injustices that marked our past still abide and are capable of dividing us even in these latter days we’d like to consider an epoch of fully reconstructed enlightenment.
Here—as best as I can tell—is a condensation of Jena’s recent history: last September Black students at Jena’s high school sat under a tree that, by tradition, was a gathering place for white students. In response White students hung nooses from the tree, and tensions rose. When the school district’s White superintendent reversed the high school principal’s decision to expel the students responsible for hanging the nooses, it didn’t help. Nor did peace descend upon Jena when a white shop keeper pulled a loaded shotgun on three black customers. The customers wrested the rifle from the shopkeeper’s hands and then were arrested for theft of a firearm. The beating of a Black teenager by White kids at a party also degraded the cause of racial harmony in Jena.
But the most troubling incident of the last year happened when six Black students from Jena’s high school were arrested for beating up a white classmate. According to witnesses, the assailants jumped a white student after the White student used racial slurs to taunt their friend. The victim of the attack went to the emergency room, was released later that day, and attended a social event in the evening.
Now the “Jena Six” have been charged—at first with attempted murder but later with aggravated assault (the aggravation being that they used deadly weapons—their tennis shoes—in the attack)—and are being tried as adults by all white juries. One of the Jena Six, 17 year old Mychal Bell, remains incarcerated despite his conviction and sentencing being thrown out by an appeals court.
Last week, some ten thousand people descended upon Jena, a town of three thousand, to protest the apparent racial double standard and the miscarriage of justice that feels as if it belongs to a bygone era.
To be fair, I was comfortably minding my own business in Northern California when all this took place, so while I find my sympathies drawn toward the plight of the Jena Six and to the other African American residents of Jena who certainly will suffer recriminations because of the events of the last year, I really don’t know what happened.
But this I do know: White people in Jena and elsewhere will claim the events in Jena as evidence that American Whites are oppressed, victimized, and held to a double standard, and such statements won’t just be on racist websites or on talk radio. In private, between friends and neighbors, white people will lament and complain bitterly about the many ways they are deprived of justice and equality in a nation that has gone too far in the application of civil rights.
That scares me.
It’s never good when powerful people consider themselves oppressed. It wasn’t good in Nazi Germany, it wasn’t good in the post-cold war Balkans, it isn’t good in contemporary Sudan. And never has there been a more powerful people than the descendants of European immigrants to North America. The last thing our nation and our world need is for White Americans to fight imagined oppression. The legal gains of the civil rights era are too important and the momentum toward racial and ethnic harmony in American society are too precious for us to jeopardize them with actions born of unfounded suspicion and fear.
So if, like me, you are a White American, please do not allow yourself to be swayed by any suggestion that the events in Jena, Louisiana are evidence that we are somehow marginalized and robbed of justice. We’re not, and may God preserve all of us, Black and White, if we forget.