Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Tuesday Introspective - Racism in this day and age

Last Thursday, the streets of Jena, Louisiana were filled with over 20,000 peaceful protesters, marching for the Jena 6. This small southern town of no more than 3,000 found itself the focal point of a national outcry against racism and the judicial system. Had the white authorities of Jena meted unfair punishment on six black students?

This is a story that would not have reached national news but for the outreach of a group of African American bloggers who brought public outcry to a local issue, culminating in one of the largest civil rights protests this country has seen in years. By now, the media has finally caught up with all the events that have been occurring in this small town, and it has squarely labeled this town as one with a large racial divide. However, the townspeople deny that racism is an issue in Jena, trying to deflect public outcry by writing this off as an insulated incident.

But the issue is that this is not just one incident. It was a continued pattern of behavior that had been ongoing for years. What is most disturbing about this case is the extreme differences in reactions of authorities to certain events. Let us review the facts of the case. A black student asks his high school principal if he can sit under a shady tree, one that was dubbed the “whites only” tree. His principal states that the student is allowed to sit wherever he wants. (Doesn’t it strike you as problematic right at the beginning of the facts that there is a shade tree that was deemed for whites only? That a black student felt he needed to ask permission to sit under said tree?) The next day, three nooses were found hanging from the “whites only” tree in a chilling statement of racial hatred. The principal, upon discovering the identity of the noose hangers, recommended their expulsion to the school board. But here is the ugly part, school officials disagreed with the principal and refused to expel the students. Instead, they deemed that the hanging of the nooses were merely a “silly prank” and handed down only three days of suspension to the offending students.

I need to pause here to consider the enormity of this statement. Hanging nooses from a “whites only” tree after black students had in the minds of the white students "defiled" their “white” area, is considered a “silly prank.” That’s like saying a convicted murderer who just broke out of prison and pulls out a knife or gun and points it in front of your face, is just playing a little joke on you. It doesn’t feel like a joke. It definitely doesn't feel like a "silly prank." It feels like a threat, like intimidation, and it feels dangerous. Given the history of our country and the fact that blacks were lynched for exercising their civil rights, there is no way this is just a “silly prank.”

While the misconduct by white students was handled as a joke, other related incidents were also mishandled by the white authorities. A former white student brandished a shotgun at three black students and went unpunished. (Bringing my previous analogy even sharply to bear on this case.) And in the weeks that followed the noose incident, several racially charged fights broke out, one of them involving Robert Bailey, one of the Jena Six. Bailey, 17, was attacked a by a 22-year old white man who broke a bottle on Bailey’s head but was only charged and convicted of simple battery.

The reason media attention has been so great on the Jena Six is the excessive nature of the charges brought against the young men. According to court documents, the six boys knocked a white boy unconscious and continued to kick him. The school officials and the LaSalle Parish District Attorney have decided to make an example of these students, charging them with felonious assault and second degree attempted murder which could result in decades of imprisonment.

Attempted murder? According to Louisiana state law, a person can only be tried for aggravated second-degree battery, not to mention murder, when a weapon is used. There wasn't a weapon used in the Jena Six incident. However, the district attorney was so convinced that the Jena Six incident was not simple battery that he claimed that the attackers' shoes were the weapons. Shoes as weapons? I didn’t know high school boys were now wearing stilettos. The victim in question had allegedly incited the event with derogatory remarks. And although being severely beaten up, the victim was well enough to discharge himself from the hospital a few hours after admission and to make it to a high school event later that same day.

Now, let me state for the record that I believe that the Jena boys deserve punishment. After all, beating a person unconscious and still kicking him while he is down is a violent crime and should be punished as one. There is no question that a mob of six could easily kick a man to death. But I also think that this is a situation where the authorities led to the simmering racial tensions that culminated in this violent act. Had the school board appropriately punished the boys who had hung the nooses, perhaps the racial tensions would not have escalated. But by writing off as a “silly prank” something that was as ugly and dangerous as nooses on a tree, the school board told the white kids of Jena, it’s ok to be racist and bring back signs of lynchings and the good ole boy days. It’s ok to promote a “whites only” tree. It’s ok to hate. In fact, during last weeks rally, a couple of yahoos decided to drive past the protesters, with 2 nooses hanging off the back of their pick up truck.

Racism is a learned behavior, we aren’t born with the knowledge to hate another race, or sex or religion. We are taught by out parents, our friends, our peers. There will continue to be racism as long as someone out there hates and passes it on to another generation. We no longer live in a time where overt racism affects us, nowadays, racism is much more subtle. But it would be foolish to think there is no racism in the world. We live in a time where honor killings still occur in parts of this world, simply for interacting with a person not of your race or religious ethnicity. Earlier this year, a seventeen year old Kurdish girl was stoned to death by men (some even from her family) who were outraged that she had a relationship with a Sunni Muslim boy. Her death was recorded by cell phones and video tapes of the men who took part in her stoning. (I bring this story in here because it is such a horrific event that demonstrates not just racism but sexism which is an even greater problem in many countries.)

Whenever I think we have come so far, it is brought home to me that the Civil Rights movement is not that old. It’s only forty years old, the same as I am. It reminds me of something the comedian Chris Rock said during one of his comedy shows. He said he may be a very rich and famous black man but there was no white man in the audience who would ever want to trade places with him, even if he was poor, because that's how much better being white in this country is. Not one person disagreed. And yet I recall having a discussion with acquaintances of mine who unequivocally stated that racism was not an issue in this country anymore and that it was the minorities who were breeding hatred against whites. And no amount of arguing on my or others parts could change their minds. They did not believe that inequities occurred against minorities.

We cannot change everyone's minds. We cannot solve racism overnight. It is an ongoing problem not only here but throughout the world. And perhaps it is naive to believe that it would ever be resolved. But I continue to hope for more tolerance, more understanding of people's differences. Maybe a story like this would not occur in another forty years. We can only hope and pray.


Lisa said...

I think in this country our memories tend to be far too short. Very young people don't remember the civil rights movement or race riots or segregation. I barely remember it, and people older than I am remember it well. It's far too easy for people to believe that things have changed radically when our history is only moments behind us in the big picture. When hate crimes are committed against Jews in this country, it is difficult for people who don't remember World War II to comprehend that although we lose more of them daily, there are holocaust survivors who are a living testament to the fact that a huge percentage of the world at one time was OK with the idea that Jews shouldn't exist. We interred Japanese Americans in this country during the war and took away everything they owned. Native American reservations are the ongoing legacy of what the country did to Native Americans. Genocide is occurring somewhere around the globe all the time. People who don't remember history in our country are doomed to repeat it. We have to remember how fragile our tolerance really is, respect that just because we've been fortunate enough to live in much more tolerant times than those who came before us, that we have a long way to go to put the past behind us. I don't know what the answer is except that I believe we all need to stand up and speak our minds when we see racism and intolerance because if we don't, we only become divided again.

Precie said...

I find many things frustrating about the Jena 6 case. I have to wonder, though, what is the best way to overcome such institutionalized racism. When an entire town not only doesn't recogize its racist inclinations but also doesn't acknowledge the underlying social and legal structure that allows a "whites only" tree to EXIST, how does one even begin to go about changing that town's legal and educational systems? Will public awareness of the Jena 6 actually lead to societal change or will it polarize people even more?

Another thing that worries me about this case is that the hoards of people coming to support the Jena 6, whether physically or financially, are inherently supporting violence. It reflects the vastly different ideologies of Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm X...How can we achieve the utopian society King dreamed of? Can it be done without the in-your-face approach of Malcolm X?

Thanks for raising this topic, ello. It's been weighing on me heavily. I'd also be curious to know about your professional view of the situation. In terms of legality, what can be done in the Jena 6 case that fosters more equable application of justice?

Ello said...

Lisa, excellent points and I completely agree with you. It is a cliche but it seems a truism that history repeats itself unless we learn from it. Perhaps I am naive but I believe that history and educating out younger generations are the only way to combat hatred. With learning comes greater power to reason and understand. We must speak up, but we must do so in a way that educates and not incites.

Precie, this too has been weighing heavily on me. Its like when I heard the story about the attack on the Kurdish girl. Had I been blogging then, I think I would have had endless posts on that one because it hurts to hear that this kind of hatred exists in the world. The Jena 6 case is one of those cases that will be hard for the town to live down. At best it has pointed a spotlight on them that should make them rethink their ways. I think those supporters that are calling for all charges to be dropped against these boys are completely wrong. Like you said, we cannot condone violence and that is what would happen if they were not punished. But the punishment must be reasonable. One boy was tried as an adult when he should have been tried as a juvenile. That has already been fixed due to the media spotlight on this case. So inequities are clearly being fixed. Legally, I am sure the right decision will be made. But the damage has been done and minorities in this country are once again reminded of just how fragile the race relations can be.

Church Lady said...

This is a great post, and you wrote it beautifully. Have you read "Native Son" by Richard Wright? It speaks to the issue of racism in a deep, personal way. I love this book.

Our family lives overseas for part of the year, in a country where most European/American families have maids and nannies. I remember taking my kids to an indoor playground a couple of years ago, and one of the nannies who was sitting on a chair stood up to give the chair to me. My heart fell. I politely thanked her and went over to the corner to sit on the floor. I don't want my children seeing this. Moments like that can accumulate.

Melissa Marsh said...

Some Americans have a tendency to believe that our history isn't clouded with racism and hate and murder. In part, I think this is the fault of our schools and how we were taught. American history textbooks tend to showcase the white POV and paint a nice, rosy picture. There's a great book called LIES MY TEACHER TOLD ME that perfectly illustrates this point.

Great post, Ell. I know that I am very proud of my stepson for being a friend to any race - he has Mexican, African-American, and Asian friends. He doesn't see color. I pray he continues with this mindest throughout the rest of his life.

Ello said...

CL - I loved Native Son - it should be required reading in all high schools, if it isn't already. The colonialist attitude that still exists in some countries is mindboggling. Bravo for you for making a stand!

Melissa - I agree that we must strive to better our education system to make history resonate with our children so that it will not repreat itself.

Charles Gramlich said...

Racism is definetely alive and well in the US, although I think there is less serious "violence" associated with it than in the past. I teach at a primarily black university and many of our students went to Jena for the march. Clearly the students were charged inappropriately, although I wish more speakers would have said up front that, yes, the kids 'did' deserve some punishment for a six on one beating.

For a bit on the other side of racism, here in New Orleans a lawsuit is being appealed to the supreme court that would pay a bunch of white employees of the New Orleans district attorney's office money because they were fired and replaced with black workers. It's already been upheld by all the lower courts. There is, unfortunately, a lot of racism going around.

pacatrue said...

Lots of great topics in here, ello.

I should say up front that I am originally from a small town in Louisiana of about 5,000, though it's not near Jena. From 1st to 4th grade, I went to a private school about half a mile from my house. I remember conversations with other kids in 2nd grade or so where we were discussing what a "private" school was, since many of our friends went to the public one. I remember believing that a private school was one where blacks were not allowed. I don't think anyone told us this, but the difference in who the students were was clear even to a 7 year old.

I know my parents well enough to know that wasn't why I was there (and I switched to public in 5th grade for various reasons), but the honest truth is that many private schools in the south were created after Brown V Board of Education specifically so that whites wouldn't have to go to school with blacks, and one reason for attending them today, though not the only one, is for the exact same reason.

At another point, I remember going on some church group tour around 8th grade and the church leader / van driver started telling n------ jokes. I had grown up enough to be offended by it, but not grown enough yet (I was about 12) to say anything. (I was a visitor with a friend and never before part of the group, but that's no real excuse.) For everyone else, this was just normal behavior.

I could go on about this for a long time. I thought it worth mentioning because Jena is not alone in Louisiana for having simmering racism that goes unacknowledged. But just thinking of Louisiana or the South as racist-leaning is vastly oversimplifying the situation. At the same time as all these racist tendencies, white southerners are perhaps more intimately connected to black culture than in almost any other part of the country. Country music is intimately tied to black music from the early 20th century. Country food is very connected to soul food. Language of whites in the south is heavily influenced by the language of blacks. (Of course, there is no necessary connection between race and language at all, but there are various dialects that can be relatively accurately described as black english... qualifier here, qualifier here).

Later when I was in Jersey for high school, we had often had custodians with very strong black English dialects usually from the Trenton area, and, well I don't know the backgrounds of most of my classmates, but I was able to talk and joke with them far more easily than almost anyone else, because I'd heard such speech all my life, as opposed to classmates, who I guess only knew the "Mainstream American English" dialect. It's curious that the pseudo-country kid from the racist South with all these stories was actually more closely connected to black language and culture than my priveleged classmates from NY, NJ, and PA, where racism is supposed to be far less. That's a topic for another day.

The point is that whites and blacks in the south seem to have this sort of co-dependency, love/hate relationship. At the same time that there is tremendous societal racism, on both sides, in the south, neither culture would even exist as it does today without the influence and constant contact of the other.

Okay, apparently, I had a lot to say on this topic.

I did want to take off on Church Lady's point as well about uncomfortable relationships in the world of expats. Her story recalled to me my first cruise, which was to Alaska on Holland America. At the time at least, on Holland America, all of the job positions were very ethnicity based. The captain and main ship crew were Dutch or Scandinavian. The party staff were all American or Brits. And all of the waiters and bartenders and maids. the service positions, were entirely staffed by Indonesians and Malays. I understand that this is a very complex matter of economies and job skills, but, wow, at the time I could not help but keep feeling over and over that I was a white guy on a ship being served by people with a different skin color. It put me off cruises for a while (they were a family thing with my grandmother at the time).

The Anti-Wife said...

Excellent post, Ello. Very well thought out and stated.

Ello said...

Charles - discriminatory practices are inherently problematic and illegal regardless of race, gender, religion, etc. The law doesn't always do what is right, but it is up to the public to push lawmakers towards ending discriminatory practices altogether. I'm afraid we have a long way to go.

Paca - Love your treatise! It's extremely interesting to hear what it was like growing up in Louisiana. It validates all we have been hearing about Jenna, but at the same time you raise such an interesting point about how closely white southerners and blacks are linked. I wonder if there is any research on this issue? I may have to look into this some more. You say you could go on about this, well I would definitely love to hear more!

AW - thanks - you can see how troubled I am by this.

Larramie said...

WWII and racism all in one week, you challenge us, Ello. And while not grouping all southerners together, I've heard from transplanted Yankees that the south believes they won The Civil War.

Ello said...

I love that you think I'm challenging you! I've got so many topics that I would love to expound on. I hope I keep everyone's interest!

Patti said...

larramie: i have never heard that before. i live in the south and i don't know anyone who thinks the civil war was won by the south.

ello: i had a profound hateful racial experience when i was 10. I am a fair skinned, blonde haired, blue-eyed gal. i was living in washington dc, and was tormented because of my race at the public school i attended (my dad was military...we lived there fora very long year) i have never looked at the racial issue the same since.

Ello said...

It is important to remember that racism is hatred towards anyone and not just non-whites. I understand what it feels like to be on the receiving end of hatred that has no logical explanation except for something I have no control over. Thanks for sharing.

Larramie said...

Patti, but Texas isn't exactly the south, it's an entity that stands alone. Yes? ;)

Lafreya said...

Ello thank you so much for your blog entry on this subject and for the chance to have this discussion.

Unfortunately it's not only in the South that incidents like this happen, even in the north, even in very liberal places like Ann Arbor, Michigan, racisms still exist ( some of the stuff the so called educated people on my job say to me would turn your hair gray.) and justice is handed out very differently for people of color.

My brother is a judge and my sister is an attorney and the wars they have to fight to make sure that the judicial system works for everybody regardless of color and economic status makes me proud that they are my siblings. Yet I’m angry and sad that in this day an age they still have to fight the fight of our grandparents and parents.

Most of my writing and art grapples with some of the same issues that have come up in the Jena 6 case. I'm the only African American in my writing groups and discussing my work has been enlightening for me because, even when some of the conversation has been shall I say very uncomfortable at least the discussion has taken place. Some of the people in my groups who are now some of my closes friends admit that they had never read novels by African American writers or thought deeply about racial issues until they had to start critiquing my work. Needless to say I wrote them out a list of black writers they needed to be reading because they shouldn’t even be starting with my unpublished work.

And Ello thanks for visiting my blog. In answer to your question about my WIP Act of Grace. The novel is done and I’m doing the last bit of editing now. I should sending it out to agents by the end of October. I will be putting more of it up to be read. It was only because of Nathan’s contest that I learned to do a blog so I’m fine tuning things.


Ello said...

Thanks for your wonderful post. I know exactly what you mean. As an Asian American growing up in NYC, I was exposed to much racism. It definitely is not limited by geography, although the racism you find might be a little different in how it approaches you.

Best of luck on your WIP!