From Durham to Jena

I’d been sort of vaguely following the Jena 6 story, but have resisted writing about it because, as a number of bloggers have pointed out, the reporting has been murky and the facts are a little wriggly. But it does seem to me that there’s an essential issue that’s being lost in the current discussion of the Jena 6. The issue isn’t whether or not there’s racism in America (there is), or even whether there may in fact be pervasive and systemic racism in America (there is). The issue is whether that racism is being addressed and repudiated, or whether it’s being used — and manipulated — for personal glory.

For those who don’t know, the Jena 6 are six young black men from Jena, Louisiana who are awaiting trial on charges of aggravated battery; they allegedly assaulted a white classmate in the High School cafeteria and beat and kicked him till he lost consciousness. The controversy lies is the background.

As I understand the time line, some months before the assault an assembly was held in the High School gymnasium. Apparently Jena, like many high schools nationwide, has defacto, self-imposed racial segregation. There are “Black Bleachers” where only black students sit and there was (it has since been cut down) a “White Tree” under which only white students sat. At this assembly a black student who was new to the school inquired if he was allowed to sit under the “White Tree” in the school yard. The principal told him he could sit wherever he wanted to sit. Following the assembly, he and a few other black students sat in the shade under the white tree.

The next morning, three nooses were found hanging from the tree.

The principal expelled the students responsible, but the school board overturned that punishment and instead suspended them from school for three days.

This set off a series of racially tinged incidents; the details of which are murky. There was a series of school-yard fights. Another assembly was called. The DA spoke to the students, telling them, “[w]ith one stroke of my pen, I can make your life disappear.” (Referring to his power to prosecute.) The black students claim he was looking directly at them. He claims he was speaking to the entire student body. A school administration building was set on fire. The arsonists have not been found. A white student beat-or-threatened-or-assaulted a black student with a bottle and was charged with simple battery. The assailant received probation. A white student brandished an unloaded shotgun at a group of black students in a convenience store parking lot. He claims self-defense, the black students claim he was threatening them. The black students wrestled the gun away from the white student and ran off. They were charged with stealing the shotgun.

And then came the beating in question. A young white man, who may or who may not have been taunting a black classmate, was allegedly assaulted and beaten until he lost consciousness by six black youths. Those six students were arrested.

They were charged with attempted second-degree murder.

Those charges have since been reduced to aggravated second-degree battery, a crime that requires the use of a “deadly weapon.” The weapons in question are the alleged assailant’s shoes.

See the Wikipedia entry for the full chronology. (And for the details surrounding Mychal Bell, the only one of the six to have been tried.)

So here we are. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton (that paragon of integritude) have staged marches. 10,000 people protested in Jena last week, among them several celebrities. Many pundits, Jackson included, are treating this case as the seminal civil rights case of the early 21st century — on a par with the protests and marches in Selma, Alabama in the 1960’s. Jackson went so far as criticize presidential hopeful Barack Obama for failing to give the Jena case enough attention. Jackson purportedly said that Obama was “acting like he’s white.”

OK, deep breath… and, here we go.

Is there racism in Louisiana? Yes.

Is it really still the kind that hangs nooses from a tree? Yes it is. Jena is northern Louisiana, and there are a LOT of stupid crackers in north Louisiana.

Is the kind of self-segregation we see in the Jena High School partly to blame for the heightened racial tensions? Probably. Segregation is almost always stupid. But lest we forget, you can go into any high school anywhere in the country and find evidence of exactly the same kind of self-segregation. The difference is you don’t always see the nooses. Or the arson. Or the prosecutorial misjudgment.

But let’s look at the prosecutorial judgment. By the time of the final incident, the local prosecutors were probably pretty tired of the mess. So they did what prosecutors everywhere do. They threw the book at the students. Essentially, they try to deter future crime by “making an example” of these particular students, and that’s a problem. More on that here.

The problem is that the current protest isn’t so much about demanding that appropriate charges be brought, but about demanding that all charges be dropped. The rallying cry for the protest movement has been “Free the Jena 6!” Richard Thompson Ford, of says this might be because, “‘Stop Informal Segregation and Prosecutorial Overzealousness That Disproportionately Affects African-Americans Here and Elsewhere’ won’t fit on T-shirt or a placard.”

And that’s a problem because, as Ford goes on to say, “…the logic that underlies the demand to free the Jena 6 comes down to this: These six young men were justified in kicking their lone victim senseless because other people who shared his race committed offenses against other black students.”

But that’s the logic behind all of current progressive thinking on race. It’s the mistake of stripping individuals of their moral agency and then of treating those same people merely as fungible parts of an arbitrary collection.

It’s what the Nazis did with the Jews, it’s what misogynists do to women, it’s what bigots do to homosexuals, and it’s what those racist kids did when they hung the nooses. But it’s also what everyone in the “Free Jena 6 movement” are doing in Jena, and it’s why they can muster outrage over prosecutorial overzealousness in Louisiana, but not in North Carolina.

By demanding that the charges be dropped, they have declared the moral agency of the accused void. In that, they commit the same kind of shameful wrong that the young would-be-thugs who hung the nooses did; they have reduced the Jena 6 to mere objects.

Hanging the nooses gave voice to an ugly, nasty sentiment. A few kids sat under a tree. They were black, and for that — their crime of being black — these kiddy-klan crackers said they should be punished. They hung the nooses and tried intimidation. Demanding that charges against the Jena 6 be dropped completely is an implicit claim that the beating was justified. Because the student hung the noose? No. Because the student was white.

This kind of thinking is endemic. How else to explain the differences in the treatment of the Jena 6 and the Duke 3? (If you’ve been abroad for the past year, here’s a summary of the Duke case.)

In an interview with the American Journalism Review, Newsweek’s Evan Thomas talked about Newsweek’s coverage:

“It was about race. Nifong’s motivations clearly were rooted in his need to win black votes. There were tensions between town and gown, that part was true. The narrative was properly about race, sex and class… We went a beat too fast in assuming that a rape took place… We just got the facts wrong. The narrative was right, but the facts were wrong.”

Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton each weighed in on the Duke rape case. Sharpton staged protests, but none in support of the the three students who were wrongly accused by an overzealous prosecutor. Jesse Jackson offered the accuser a college scholarship, whether or not her allegations were true (reported by the AP, one link here).

The faculty at Duke university who publicly vilified three innocent students, have not repudiated their attack. Sharpton hasn’t apologized, and who knows if Jackson followed through with a check.

Why? Because the narrative was right. Race matters. Facts don’t. People don’t.

In Jena, there’s a lot we’re not sure of. There are a lot of conflicting eyewitness accounts, and almost certainly there’s a lot of lying. And there’s a lot of racist thinking. On both sides.

The problem is that the essential issues in Jena, like the essential issues in Durham, really have nothing to do with race. The essentials are the lives of the young men and women in question. And those lives aren’t “narratives.” These are people, not plot points in a story.

Let’s get the facts right, and then lets root out the racism…. everywhere. That would be a narrative worth listening to.