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It’s not just about blacks: Injustice bigger than Jena
Copyright 2007 Houston Chronicle
We black Americans seem to need a major event or outrage every so often to revive our mass energies in ways that remind of us the 1960s civil rights movement. In the 1980s we had mass arrests at the South African embassy to protest apartheid. In the 1990s there was the Million Man March to redeem black fatherhood and proper role modeling. In 2007 we have the “Jena Six.”
Thousands flowed into tiny Jena, La., last week. They came to march on behalf of six black youths who were originally charged with attempted murder for allegedly beating up a white youth last December at the local high school in what many describe as a schoolyard fight.
The “Jena Six” case actually began months earlier when three nooses appeared in a tree at the high school. That was one day after black students defied a school tradition that designated the tree to be a whites-only gathering spot. The principal expelled three white students for hanging the nooses, but the school superintendent reduced the expulsions to a few days of suspension.
Tensions grew as various interracial fights, attacks and angry confrontations, mostly off-campus, in later weeks resulted in young white males receiving slaps on the wrist, at most, while young blacks received school expulsions or criminal charges.
It was the local district attorney’s decision to charge six black students with attempted second-degree murder, while white students had gone free for other attacks, that touched off the national uproar. The white student who was beaten allegedly taunted blacks with racial slurs and was a friend of the students who had hung the nooses. He was treated and released after a few hours in a local hospital.
I don’t make light of anyone’s beating, but the attempted murder charge was an excess wretched enough to be a virtual invitation to the Revs. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, who led the march with Martin Luther King III.
Suddenly little Jena became a symbol in many minds of every injustice or racial grievance, real or perceived, that black folks have endured in recent years, from the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina to the gross disparities between federal sentences for crack and powder cocaine.
The Jena Six put real names and faces to Justice Department statistics that show African-American men to be three times more likely than white men to face jail once they have been arrested. The biggest disparity is among men convicted of aggravated assault, according to the National Urban League’s annual State of Black America report. It found that black men are sentenced to an average of 48 months in jail — almost one-third longer than the average sentence received by white men.
But now that the crowds have gone home and Jena is once again a quiet little oil and lumber town, will the big march have lasting significance, like the movement that helped end apartheid and free Nelson Mandela? Or will it be like the Million Man March: a stirring memory and a great applause line for political speeches, but not much follow-through?
It was the bad fortune of the Jena Six demonstrators that they had to share the spotlight with another media eruption, the latest misadventures of O.J. Simpson. Charged with armed robbery in Las Vegas for allegedly trying to steal memorabilia from his own glory days, Simpson needed no help from bloggers or talk shows to get wall-to-wall coverage.
Simpson returned to TV screens like a cheap sequel to a movie you’d rather forget. He reminds us of one of America’s most racially divided moments. Simpson’s acquittal of double homicide charges gave white Americans a shock that their black friends, neighbors and co-workers have been long acquainted with, the chilling sense of denied justice. And for black Americans with an eye for bitter irony, Simpson’s acquittal showed a strange form of progress, at best: America had progressed enough to let a rich black man buy his way out of accountability in the way once reserved for rich white men.
But that’s not a good enough standard of justice for a great people or a great country. As demonstrated by the Rev. Al Sharpton’s fiasco with Tawana Brawley or the recent bogus Duke University rape case, unequal justice doesn’t always tilt against black folks or Latinos. We simply have been statistically more vulnerable to it.
In this increasingly diverse country, Americans should not have to spend another century playing one-downs-manship, competing to see whose race or ethnic group can be the most victimized. The best legacy for the Jena Six march would be a new movement, dedicated this time to the reduction and elimination of unequal justice wherever it appears. I don’t care who leads it, but it shouldn’t be for blacks only.
Page is a Pulitzer Prize-winning syndicated columnist specializing in urban issues. He is based in Washington, D.C. (firstname.lastname@example.org )
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