Saturday, September 22, 2007

The problems with Jena

Although its been under the radar for a while, the Jena 6 have now burst into the national consciousness. As is usual with this type of thing, our reactions are formed as much by our preconceived notions as by the facts of the case. I'm no exception. For me, it's not so much about the response to Jena as it is the fact tht only incidents like this tend to generate urgency among leaders like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton.

It seems to me that there is reason to be concerned about what happened in Jena. Whether or not the discipline meted out to the kids who hung a noose in a tree that was apparently regarded as a "whites only" lounging spot, it seems clear that school officials did not take it sufficiently seriously. In our world, swastikas on synagogues, nooses in places where black people want to go, etc., are not harmless pranks. Although I do not think that anyone should be shocked that a group of kids who beat another unconscious are charged with felonies (just as nooses in a tree are not a "prank," this was not a schoolhouse scuffle), it does seem like charges of attempted murder for the assailants were over the top.

But it seems silly to suggest, as Jesse Jackson does, that this is the new Selma or to imply, as Leonard Pitts has, that these events are somehow comparable to the type of jury nullification and official complicity in violence against blacks that we saw in the south fifty years ago. The charges may have been too harsh but they have since been reduced. The response to the nooses may have not been harsh enough, but the school certainly didn't tolerate them.

But Jackson and Al Sharpton are excited about Jena because, even if it must be played for more than it's worth, it allows them to do what they do best - get folks riled up over the traditional - white - villians.

This isn't all bad and wouldn't be bad at all if Jackson or Sharpton or others with similar clout had any other cards to play. One would think, for example, that 2007's Selma might be revolve aroung that which constitutes the greatest threat to black aspirations. One might think that it would have something to do with the violent conditions in America's central cities or even the poverty that we find there. But that can't so readily be portrayed as a matter of "us v. them" or "good v. evil." As D.L. Hughley jokes, it feels good to believe - for a moment - that everything will be better now that we got rid of Don Imus.

Of course, there are larger issues of discrimination in the criminal justice system about which we always want to be reasonably diligent. But I can't help but believe that if this is where all of the energy is directed, larger problems go unaddressed.

Jason Whitlock gets at some of this when he writes that all of this concern about one member of the Jena 6 who has been tried - Mychal Bell - comes a little late. A father who was not part of his like and authorities who may have coddled him in the aftermath of earlier offenses because of his prowess as a football player might have done better by him. But these things - particularily the absence of fathers - seem harder to use as the basis for public morality plays and vehicles for protest. That's a pity.

1 comment:

Paula said...

I recently learned that Louisiana does not have an innocent-until-proven-guilty bias, but forms it's codes upon napoleonic laws that have a guilty-until-proven-innocent basis. That explained a lot to me about this case, and it's subsequent denouement. What do you think?