Jim Crow ‘Justice’, Contemporary Racism(s) and ‘Discovering’ a Travesty (UPDATE 09.14)

UPDATE 09.14: A state appellate court has thrown out the battery conviction of one of the Jena 6, 16 year old Mychal Bell. Bell had been charged as an adult and could have faced up to 15 years in prison. The DA still has the option to refile juvenile charges. More to come.

So (white) people have finally ‘discovered’ the Jena Six. Congrats, have a (chocolate) cookie, etc. I guess now that Amy Goodman is on the case, we can hopefully expect the A-listers to finally put some serious bandwidth into the matter (to be fair, at least Amy was covering this back in, er, July, as were BoingBoing and Kottke).

Better late than never, I suppose.

But I don’t want to turn this subject into round 69 (my lucky number) of ‘where are the bloggers of colour’? (answer: right fucking here, like we’ve always been.)

Like The Angry Black Woman, I have held back on writing about this subject now, because articulating my thoughts beyond blind rage has been something of a trial (bitter pun intended). Part of me feels loathe to finally do so in this particular venue, not because of my fellow bloggers; rather, I am wary of the sort of push-back that may result from posting at a site where unapologetic racists (or those in heavy denial) almost certainly lurk in the background. But fuck it – sometimes you gotta bust the barn doors wide open and let the Palominos run wild, goddamn the fucking unavoidable consequences and potential assault by virtual Night Riders.

Fuck all y’all and the horses, etc.

I’m not going to go through the specifics; many others (eg, Carmen D. of All About Race, along with others listed in the links above and many, many more) have busted their butts doing the heavy lifting already. They are the ones who deserve the attention.

What I find most revealing in this incident is the ongoing post-slavery hangover the US (and, to a different extent, Canada) is still recovering from. We tend to (willfully) forget that segregation ended little more than 40 years ago, in some areas less than that. Other relatively recent events such as Jasper and Katrina have forced us to open our eyes, violently ripped open thinly healed scars (not to mention nor minimize the sting from relative paper cuts perpetuated by the likes of Michael Richards and Don Imus).

We’. By that I mean ‘white people’.

‘We’ (as in ‘people of colour’) don’t share the luxury, the privilege, the soft bigotry of colour blindness; as Paul Kivel notes, “[u]ltimately, this disclaimer prevents us from taking responsibility for challenging racism because we believe that people who see color are the problem.”

To me, there is little at the moment that better illustrates the lie of colour blindness and the divisiveness still wrought by racial animosity than the ordeal the Jena Six and their families have gone through. The continued cycle of hatred, mistrust, and violence that has brought us to this point in history began generations ago; the fact that the circle remains unbroken to this day should serve as a stark warning to all of us, regardless of colour, creed, or political allegiance. Sure, things are better than they were in the days following slavery: Jim Crow, segregation, protest marches and water cannons; but contemporary racisms (plural) belie the notion that the here and now has achieved some mythical ideal.

If we–we–are truly ‘all in this together’, than we need to stop trying to pretend that racism is an antiquated problem, that incremental, sideways change equals a panacea. Acknowledging there is still a problem–and, consequently, initiating a dialogue–is only the first step, but it’s a vital one if momentum is to build. Because otherwise there will be more Jenas, more scars, and more paper cuts; we will keep feigning surprise at having to repeatedly attempt to untie the Gordian knot of race.

September 20th, the day Mychal Bell is scheduled to be sentenced, over 2000 members and supporters of Color of Change will be headed to Jena, LA to protest in solidarity with Mychal. If I could join them in more than spirit, I would. Until then, I will lend moral (and financial) support by purchasing a t-shirt.

I suggest y’all do the same, or, if possible, make the journey in person (if the spirit–the forward momentum of first steps–moves you).

Related: via Kevin @ Slant Truth, more ways to get involved:

Friends of Justice

Jena Six Petition from Color of Change

Jena Six Petition

6 Responses to “Jim Crow ‘Justice’, Contemporary Racism(s) and ‘Discovering’ a Travesty (UPDATE 09.14)”

  1. Thanks for this Matt. It’s a good post, and you’re right, trying to say we’re over it all is simply remaining dangerously ignorant. I was shocked tolearn that there were private schools in Virginia that actually were segregationist into the 80’s! The 80’s!

    How does this kind of thing happen?

    And as we were talking about last night, a lot of people, and they know who they are, they make excuses, and they pull the “I’m not a racist, but…” bullshit, and it drives me more than a little insane.

    Crap… I’m going to comment on this in more detail tomorrow. Right now I’m still too stuck in Bush’s speech and making some difficult comment replies and writing some even more difficult emails to even be able to give this the attention it deserves.

    But again, thanks for taking this up. If you have a graffic or a big link, talk to mike and maybe he can see about getting something flashy in a sidebar to try and get some of those t-shirts moving.

  2. matttbastard says:

    My pleasure, Kyle. Heh, I think everone is still in shock. Me, I was expecting it. All along, going back to PRE-invasion. (And no, this isn’t me putting my soothsayer robe on. An endless committment was always hiding in plain site).

    re: t-shirts – Thanks, I’ll talk to Mike about that. Carmen D. of All About Race commented over @ my pad passing along thanks for getting the word out. If Mike gives the go ahead, I’ll contact the Colour For Change folks to see if they have any buttons/graphics that could be used as a sidebar link.

  3. Will says:

    As I’ve been watching and reading the coverage… the long-awaited coverage… of the Jena Six situation, I cannot help but feel angered at my former profession, the “media”.
    First, it’s covered this travesty in Louisiana far too little, and covered Paris, Lindsey, Brittney, and OJ far too much… in my humble opinion.
    Now, when the “media” does cover the marches and vigils… and NOT the story itself, it is leaving out some crucial facts to the story.
    Please read the following Chicago Tribune story, dated May 20, 2007. And, note the facts I put in bold type that the “media” is now evading, overlooking, and/or simply leaving out to, in my humble opinion, “craft” the essence of the story of the Jena Six:

    Racial Demons Rear Heads

    Howard Witt
    hwitt@tribune.com

    Senior Tribune Correspondent
    reposted from thechicagotribune.com

    The trouble in Jena started with the nooses. Then it rumbled along the town’s jagged racial fault lines. Finally, it exploded into months of violence between blacks and whites. Now the 3,000 residents of this small lumber and oil town deep in the heart of central Louisiana are confronting Old South racial demons many thought had long ago been put to rest.

    One morning last September, students arrived at the local high school to find three hangman’s nooses dangling from a tree in the courtyard.

    The tree was on the side of the campus that, by long-standing tradition, had always been claimed by white students, who make up more than 80 percent of the 460 students. But a few of the school’s 85 black students had decided to challenge the accepted state of things and asked school administrators if they, too, could sit beneath the tree’s cooling shade.

    “Sit wherever you want,” school officials told them. The next day, the nooses were hanging from the branches.

    African-American students and their parents were outraged and intimidated by the display, which instantly summoned memories of the mob lynchings that once terrorized blacks across the American South. Three white students were quickly identified as being responsible, and the high school principal recommended that they be expelled.

    “Hanging those nooses was a hate crime, plain and simple,” said Tracy Bowens, a black mother of two students at the high school who protested the incident at a school board meeting.

    But Jena’s white school superintendent, Roy Breithaupt, ruled that the nooses were just a youthful stunt and suspended the students for three days, angering blacks who felt harsher punishments were justified.

    “Adolescents play pranks,” said Breithaupt, the superintendent of the LaSalle Parish school system. “I don’t think it was a threat against anybody.”

    Yet it was after the noose incident that the violent, racially charged events that are still convulsing Jena began.

    First, a series of fights between black and white students erupted at the high school over the nooses. Then, in late November, unknown arsonists set fire to the central wing of the school, which still sits in ruins. Off campus, a white youth beat up a black student who showed up at an all-white party. A few days later, another young white man pulled a shotgun on three black students at a convenience store.

    Finally, on Dec. 4, a group of black students at the high school allegedly jumped a white student on his way out of the gym, knocked him unconscious and kicked him after he hit the floor. The victim — allegedly targeted because he was a friend of the students who hung the nooses and had been taunting blacks — was not seriously injured and spent only a few hours in the hospital.

    But the LaSalle Parish district attorney, Reed Walters, opted to charge six black students with attempted second-degree murder and other offenses, for which they could face a maximum of 100 years in prison if convicted. All six were expelled from school.

    To the defendants, their families and civil rights groups that have examined the events, the attempted murder charges brought by a white prosecutor are excessive and part of a pattern of uneven justice in the town.

    The critics note, for example, that the white youth who beat the black student at the party was charged only with simple battery, while the white man who pulled the shotgun at the convenience store wasn’t charged with any crime at all. But the three black youths in that incident were arrested and accused of aggravated battery and theft after they wrestled the weapon from the man — in self-defense, they said.

    “There’s been obvious racial discrimination in this case,” said Joe Cook, executive director of the Louisiana chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, who described Jena as a “racial powder keg” primed to ignite. “It appears the black students were singled out and targeted in this case for some unusually harsh treatment.”

    That’s how the mother of one of the defendants sees things as well.

    “They are sending a message to the white kids, ‘You have committed this hate crime, you were taunting these black children, and we are going to allow you to continue doing what you are doing,'” said Caseptla Bailey, mother of Robert Bailey Jr.

    Bailey, 17, is caught up in several of the Jena incidents, as both a victim and alleged perpetrator. He was the black student who was beaten at the party, and he was among the students arrested for allegedly grabbing the shotgun from the man at the convenience store. And he’s one of the six students charged with attempted murder for the Dec. 4 attack.

    The district attorney declined repeated requests to be interviewed for this story. But other white leaders insist there are no racial tensions in the community, which is 85 percent white and 12 percent black.

    “Jena is a place that’s moving in the right direction,” said Mayor Murphy McMillan. “Race is not a major local issue. It’s not a factor in the local people’s lives.”

    Still others, however, acknowledge troubling racial undercurrents in a town where only 16 years ago white voters cast most of their ballots for David Duke, the former Ku Klux Klan leader who ran unsuccessfully for Louisiana governor.

    “I’ve lived here most of my life, and the one thing I can state with absolutely no fear of contradiction is that LaSalle Parish is awash in racism — true racism,” a white Pentecostal preacher, Eddie Thompson, wrote in an essay he posted on the Internet. “Here in the piney woods of central Louisiana … racism and bigotry are such a part of life that most of the citizens do not even recognize it.”

    The lone black member of the school board agrees.

    “There’s no doubt about it — whites and blacks are treated differently here,” said Melvin Worthington, who was the only school board member to vote against expelling the six black students charged in the beating case. “The white kids should have gotten more punishment for hanging those nooses. If they had, all the stuff that followed could have been avoided.”

    And the troubles at the high school are not over yet.

    On May 10, police arrested Justin Barker, 17, the white victim of the Dec. 4 beating. He was alleged to have a rifle loaded with 13 bullets stashed behind the seat of his pickup truck parked in the school lot. Barker told police he had forgotten it was there and had no intention of using it.

    PLEASE, make sure that you get the word out… ALL OF THE WORD OUT… to people who need to know the TRUTH.

  4. Thank you so much for the article Will, it is very informative.

  5. Antonette says:

    Thanks Matt for saying exactly what I was feeling, but didn’t quite know how to express it. This was shocking to me, and yet, you are right it’s only been 40 years. I should remember, I was one of the kids bused to a white school in the 70’s. So, why am I so shocked. Probably because now I live in a mixed neighborhood, my best friends are white, and my church is multi-cultural; so, all of this craziness really made me look at myself. Have I maybe lost touch with my blackness?

    Anyway, now I’m blabbering. Thanks for the post.

    And, Kyle, this was my first time visiting this blog. I will be back. Your bio was cool to read. So, I am thinking there’s hope that I’ll get my head wrapped around this political thing.

  6. matttbastard says:

    Will: Thanks for that.

    Antonette: aw, shucks–you’re making me blush now. I had a similar upbringing and current existence; am bi-racial, raised by a white mother (never knew my father – such a stereotype); grew up in a small, nearly uniformly white farming community in Southern Ontario.

    Though my current place of residence is far from ethnically homogeneous, the vast majority of my peer group is white. Culturally and socially, apart from my complexion, you could say that I am, for all intents and purposes, white. Yet there’s the rub: my skin tone automatically takes away the choice, the luxury of colour blindness. No matter my socialization and upbringing, I will always be a negro–that is beyond my control.

    Took me a while to come to terms with the cognitive dissonance.

    Though I’ve been fortunate not to have faced many overt instances of racism (certainly nothing like Jasper or Jena), there have been many of the stealth variety, oh yeah. Usually from well meaning enlightened folks who, if confronted, fervently deny even harbouring a drop of prejudiced blood.

    Anyway, now I’m the one who’s blabbering.

    Hope you stick around. I am honoured to have, in any way, made an impact.

    🙂

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