Segregation and Racism in Jena, Louisiana

Imagine a small Louisiana town with about three-thousand residents, of which some 12 percent are black. This is Jena, Louisiana, a town located in LaSalle parish.  This well-known racist environment, where African Americans have found their daily lives being riddled with racist events, has finally received national attention. In this case, the focus is on events that showcase the long-standing inequality in the U.S. justice system. The officially enforced norms of the old segregation system are not dead.
Mychal Bell, 16, the last of the six black students still in jail for assaulting a white student, will request to be released on bail after his conviction was overturned late last week.  On Friday September 14, 2007, the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeal overturned Mychal Bell’s felony conviction of aggravated battery, saying that the charge should have been handled in juvenile court.  LaSalle Parish District Attorney Reed Walters says that he will appeal. Initially, six black Jena students were arrested and charged with attempted second-degree murder; the charges have since been reduced for four of the six students to aggravated second degree battery.

To understand the charges faced by these Black teenagers, we have to examine how and why this started.  This began a year ago in September 2006 when an African American freshman asked the principal of his high school if he could sit under a shade tree on the school grounds during the day.  What this new student did not know is that this tree is known at school to be the “white tree.”  The principal told the student that he could sit anywhere he liked.  The day after the African American student sat under this particular tree three nooses were found hanging from it. 

Many in the Black community called for the expulsion of the three white students proven responsible for the act, but white authorities deemed the act an innocent prank.  For this prank, the students received only in-school suspension.  As a reply, the day after the nooses were hung, black athletes and other students organized a silent protest under the same “white tree” to show dissatisfaction with nooses and the mild in-school suspensions.
Later, the police and district attorney were called to an assembly taking place at the school.  At this assembly, the old segregated South was in evidence as Black students sat on one side while whites sat on the other.  At one point, the district attorney, Reed Walters, lifted his pen and said, “I can be your friend or your worst enemy.  With one stroke of my pen, I can make your life disappear.”

A few weeks later, on November 30, someone set fire to the school, and this crime is still unsolved.  The following day, a few black students tried to attend a party hosted and attended by whites.  While at this party, 16 year old Robert Bailey, a black student and one of the defendants, was attacked and beaten.
The next day after the party, another highly charged racial event took place.  According to news reports, at a local convenience store, Bailey was approached by a white student from the party, and harsh words were exchanged.  The white boy ran to his truck and pulled a loaded shotgun on Bailey and his friends.  Bailey wrestled the gun away from him.  Bailey and friends ran home, with the gun and eventually police got involved.  Bailey was charged with theft of a firearm, robbery, and disturbing the peace.  The white student was not charged.

The following Monday, December 4, a white student took the news of the party fight back to school and loudly taunted blacks by saying that a black boy was “whipped” by white boys.  When he walked into the courtyard, he was attacked by several black students.  He was punched and kicked and taken to a hospital. His injuries were reported to be superficial; he was treated and released and attended a class ceremony that evening.  Six black students were charged with aggravated assault, but the district attorney increased the charges to second-degree attempted murder. This aggressive act provoked a wave of black protest.
The previous incidents in which whites attacked Black students were treated as school fights. Why were the actions of the young Black students not treated the same way?
Bell was the first to go to trial.  On the morning of the trial, the district attorney reduced the charges from attempted second degree murder to second degree aggravated battery and conspiracy.  (In this case, the students’ tennis shoes are apparently considered a dangerous weapon.) Bell’s public defender did not call any witnesses on his behalf, and he was found guilty by an all-white jury.
Notice the key event here: A white protest using nooses against white space being occupied by a Black student. Whites, especially young white men, still make much use of hangman’s nooses, the N-word epithet, and other symbols of the extreme racial oppression of legal segregation era. Some use these symbols intentionally while others do not realize why they cause so much pain and anger for  African Americans. In an important book of interviews with middle-class African Americans, Living with Racism, Joe Feagin and Melvin Sikes report that an experienced African American psychologist explained to them that when he encounters a old symbol of racial oppression, such as the N-word epithet, he often sees in the back of his mind a black man hanging from a tree. He grew up during legal segregation era when lynchings of Black people were more common than today. Not surprisingly, thus, Blacks’ past experiences with discrimination inform and contextualize their interpretations of present racist events. In contrast, the impact of racist events such as hanging nooses and yelling racist epithets may well be underestimated by naïve or venal whites, as well as by other non-Black observers.
Notice in the Jena events too that some whites signaled to the African American community that the symbols of bloody lynchings were not very serious, and should be quickly forgotten. Indeed, the psychologist cited above indicated in his interview that his white friends will sometimes tell him to just “let go” of racist comments and events and “move on.” Many whites seem to believe that such insults are “trivial” or “innocent” and thus do not hurt or cause psychological damage. They are, the data makes clear, quite wrong. Such a white perspective suggests that its advocates have not been the recipients of regular put-downs and routine questioning of one’s worth.

~ Louwanda Evans and Joe Feagin

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