Context for Jena: Criminal (In)Justice in America

Several of the white commentators on the corporate-broadcast media outlets last night wondered aloud what I’m sure many whites in America were wondering: why was there such an outcry about the events in Jena?

In his lead-in to the NBC Nightly news report “Why are protestors coming to Jena?” (video available here) Brian Williams says:

“There have been many racially-tinged cases in this country over the years, so why has this one prompted all these people — thousands of them as we said — to make their way to what is, after all, a six stoplight town in the middle of Louisiana?”

The report that follows, filed by Mike Tiabbi, is not completely uncritical, but missteps by ignoring the key, critical point about the underlying issues beneath the Jena-protests: the criminal (in)justice system in America. According to data published in a report by Marc Mauer’s non-profit The Sentencing Project:

“African Americans are incarcerated at nearly six (5.6) times the rate of whites and Hispanics nearly double (1.8) the rate.

Three states – Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania – have a Hispanic-to-white ratio of incarceration more than three times the national average.

Prior research from the Department of Justice has demonstrated that if current trends continue, one in three black males and one in six Hispanic males born today can expect to go to prison. Rates for women are lower overall, but exhibit similar racial and ethnic disparities.”

For the last several years, I’ve worked on a research project focused on the incarceration of adolescents at Rikers Island here in New York City, and I can tell you that the jails here in the city, like those in the Jena, Louisiana, are filled with Black and Latino people, not whites. There are lots of sociological factors at play in these kinds of racial disparities — a political economy built on racial inequality, an on-going lack of job opportunities, especially for those who have been incarcerated, and an inherently unequal educational system — but one of the key factors in is the institutional racism built into every aspect of the criminal (in)justice system, from policing, to the courts, to the massive prison-industrial complex. What most white Americans don’t understand — and the mainstream media certainly doesn’t help clarify — is that the protests in Jena are not a response to an isolated incident but rather, a response to the criminal (in)justice system in America.