The White Tree

When I worked full-time in economic development, I longed for a deeper understanding of the systemic phenomena of racial, class and gender inequality I was responding to in low-income, predominantly minority communities around the country.  After a time in which I traveled between New York (East New York), Memphis, Tampa, Miami (Liberty City), Los Angeles (South L.A.), Chattanooga and Boston (Roxbury) for various program ops, I left to pursue a PhD. 

Now, as I enter my fourth year in the Ivory Tower, I feel fortunate – if not a little harried – to be splitting my time between the cocooned halls of Cambridge and the shocking reality of the post-Katrina Gulf Coast.  As my work in the Gulf deepens, I am increasingly accepting work that seeks to redress the endemic, systemic inequities of racism and poverty that strangled too many communities for eons prior to the suffocating chokehold of the 2005 hurricane season.  As my collaborative efforts stretch beyond the boundaries of New Orleans, even Louisiana, to Mississippi and Alabama, everyday my Northeastern, liberal assumptions and condescensions are confronted while my outrage, radicalism and desire for equality and justice are simultaneously stirred up.  In that vein, I’m devoting this post to an extremely upsetting racial injustice that my Foresight colleague Lydia Bean is fighting – alongside many others – in Jena, LA. 

I can’t do the nature of this conflict justice (no pun intended), so I’m urging you to visit the many links I’m relying on to tell the story here. 

In a nutshell: Last September, in the mostly white (90+ %), 3,000 person town of Jena, LA (the largest municipality in rural LaSalle Parish, LA), a few black students at Jena High School – after asking and receiving “permission” from school officials – sat down one afternoon in the shade of a tree long known as a “whites only” student respite.  The following day, three nooses hung from the tree.  Though the school principal recommended the students responsible be expelled, the Parish superintendent overruled him and suspended the perpetrators for three days.  Six black students staged a protest over this punishment, and were threatened by the D.A. after he and police were called to campus over their stance.  Escalating racial violence pervaded the town after that, with a black student beaten at a white party, a white man threatening black youth with a loaded gun at a local convenience store, an attempt to burn down the high school, and finally, a group of young black men beating up a young white man.  Across these altercations, the white instigators were never or modestly charged for their aggression; in contrast, six black men were arrested, held on five and six figure bonds, and charged with felonies that could earn them upwards of 80 years in prison.  The first has been convicted, by an all-white jury overseen by a white judge, and “defended” by a publicly-appointed attorney who called no witnesses, and generally appears to have done virtually nothing to protect his client.  

Lydia, along with her parents (Rev. Alan and Nancy Bean), run a non-profit organization titled Friends of Justice that is one of several organizations (including the ACLU and other legal defense groups) that are organizing and raising funds to fight for equity in the justice system on behalf of the young black men know known as the “Jena Six.”  Please, just take a look at some of the links below.  I personally, can barely get past the existence of a “white tree.”

One of the beauties of the Internet and the blogosphere is that traditional media have begun encouraging comments on their stories.  I particularly like this blogger and this local (LA) newscast on the Jena trial because of the diverse comments from readers that follow.  Jena, by most accounts, until these last months, was a peaceful place to live, and folks are clearly agonized over this fall out.  For some it’s the unwanted scrutiny of their lives and their town, for others it is the long overdue airing of the racist dirty laundry of a town where convention frees a local barber to cut only white hair:

“I don’t think we’re racist here,” barber shop owner Billy Doughty, 70, said. “People work together, go to school together. We never talk about race.”

But Doughty does not cut black men’s hair. Never has, never will. He tells that to the occasional black would-be customer.

“That’s the thing about working for yourself,” he said. “I don’t do shaves. I don’t do shampoos. I don’t cut black hair. I don’t think it’s racist. I just don’t do it.”

And that, many black people say, is the key to race relations here — you’ll get along as long as you don’t want much.

“This is a good town to live in for things like no crime, it being peaceful,” said Caseptla Bailey, whose son is facing attempted murder charges. “But it’s very racist and they don’t even try to hide it. It’s like, stay in your place or else.

(all my emphases)

At Foresight recently, Lydia took her progressive colleagues to task for disparaging the South as an isolated, backwards place in the U.S. that has distinctly failed to rise above racism and injustice.  (The link, unfortunately, isn’t working.)  I was in New Orleans at the time, and wrote a long, confessional comment in response to her fair and righteous anger.  I leave you now with excerpts from this article by a civil rights attorney in New Orleans, Bill Quigley, about the Jena case, to test your own dismissive tendencies when digesting something you cannot understand or believe. 

But blacks in this area of Louisiana have little political power. The ten person all-male government of the parish has one African-American member.  The nine member all-male school board has one African American member.  (A phone caller to the local school board trying to find out the racial makeup of the school board was told there was one “colored� member of the board).  There is one black police officer in Jena and two black public school teachers.

This is solid Bush and David Duke Country – GWB won LaSalle Parish 4 to 1 in the last two elections; Duke [a former KKK member] carried a majority of the white vote when he ran for Governor of Louisiana.  Families earn about 60% of the national average.  The Census Bureau reports that less than 10% of the businesses in LaSalle Parish are black owned.

Whites in the community were adamant that there is no racism.  “We don’t have a problem,â€? according to one.  Other locals told the media “We all get along,” and “most blacks are happy with the way things are.” One person even said “We don’t have many problems with our blacks.


8 Responses to “The White Tree”

  1. July 9, 2007 at 10:53 pm

    I believe this is the link you mean: http://www.newvisioninstitute.org/foresight/index.php/2007/06/01/dont-let-the-nooses-fool-you-the-south-is-us/#more-117

    Welcome to the South.

    As much as I am willing to grant Bean some validity in saying you can find racism everywhere, I cede to no one the observation that there’s the South … and there’s the rest of us. I’ve been in both, including some rural areas (though prudence keeps me from touring things like Jena), and no, it’s not like down there up here (in Boston). No, you won’t find nooses and “our blacks” and a history like that of Louisiana, or a bunch of other places, up here. Southerners, especially Southerners who are embarrassed about their region’s history would like nothing better than to take the ahistorical stance that Other Places Have These Problems, and that This Is No Longer The Issue It Once Was down there. Bullshit to both. Does Boston have a race problem? Abso-fricking-lutely. Is it the problem you see in Jena? Hell no. What you describe is appalling, and, to me, as always, appallingly Southern in its paternalism, its acceptance of racial separation and its ugly undercurrents no one wants to bring up lest violence and ugliness – always simmering – ensue. I’ll – still – take the Northeast any day, thanks. Isolated? Backwards? Failed to rise above and racism and injustice? Yes to all, and then some.

  2. July 10, 2007 at 11:03 am

    I don’t know why the links don’t work for me. Thanks!

    I appreciate your anger, and Lydia’s. I have so many thoughts swirling in my head, may require a separate post in response.

  3. July 10, 2007 at 6:04 pm

    You get me talking housing and immigration… i get you talking about racism and women’s anger. 🙂 Fair trade, if you ask me. 😉

  4. 4 bigshot
    July 12, 2007 at 11:00 pm

    Weboy, I’m coming to this a little late, but I must challenge your assertion that the racism in Boston and the northeast is tame compared to the racism of the South. I grew up in Louisiana where I attended public schools where we were all made aware of the South’s vicious racist past and continued racism. In our focus on the South’s awful history, I developed the false impression that such racism was long past in the North. Then I watched a documentary about the integration of Boston’s public schools and saw adult white men and women throw objects and insults at black children sitting on school buses. I was schocked. Not because I had never heard of such behavior, but because I had never seen such behavior recorded by coler television cameras. All this was in the 1970s. I couldn’t believe it. I was alive in the 1970s, attended majority-black schools, and we never had any serious racial incident to speak of. So to suggest that the racism you find up here is never as bad as the racism you find down there is off.

    Yes, there are some isolated, backwards ignorant people in Jena, LA. The 70-year old barber who doesn’t want any black customers is a flat out racist willing to tell all the way he thinks things should be. The kids hanging the noose should be expelled. The overwhelming majority of people from Louisiana would disapprove of that behavior.

    I’ll concede that the racism in the North in some ways may be different from the racism in the South? But the reasons are not as simple and guilt-free as Northerners would like to believe. A friend from New Orleans who has lived in Boston now for ten years explains it this way: in the South, white racists love the black people they know, but hate the ones they don’t. But here in Boston, white racists love the black people they don’t know, but hate the ones they do.

  5. July 13, 2007 at 12:26 am

    I disagree with your last sentence, bigshot. I know many old school Boston Irish-Cath bigots, and my evidence is that they subscribe just as much to the “exception to the rule” mentality that people use to embrace folks different from them while continuing to disparage a class of people. What the problem is though is that white and black just does not interact enough. The issue up here remains one of segregation.

    Boston is used over and over again as the example of a racist Northern city – it’s part of our ugly, ugly legacy (when Deval was running for gov, all the old images of busing were paraded around again). One of the things people miss out on in the school busing case is that poor whites and poor blacks were bused to one another’s schools – i.e., Southie to Roxbury and back. While this doesn’t excuse Southie’s actions (nothing does), it’d be nice to expand the school busing discussion to include how the privileged whites, already fleeing to the ‘burbs, many of them, managed to sidestep this whole busing-poor-kids-around! fiasco. That’s sort of an aside, but I had to point it out.

    Now that I’ve traveled the States a bit(and the world, some), and I know how Boston is relatively geographically miniscule, a minority-majority city and considers itself as much a world-class, international intellectual/biotech center (with reason) as much as it is resolutely parochial, I am amazed, AMAZED, at how segregated it remains. The startling reality of the social/spatial boundaries b/w neighborhoods is just wild considering how little this place is, and how unintegrated – especially in terms of black skin, both native-born and black immigrants – too many neighborhoods are.

    The other thing though about this place is that it is changing under locals’ noses and we have no clue, in part because of the segregation and partitioning. I am prone to rather uninformed assumptions about the city as a Masshole, that my recently arrived peers at MIT frequently debunk, because they get out and explore. As I do more and more of this with my boyfriend, I see how much this city is changing before our eyes, while we don’t bother to update our ideas and legacy. And that legacy, unfortunately, is known well beyond our borders.

  6. July 13, 2007 at 5:07 am

    Red and I discussed this at dinner the other night bigshot, and she made an important point – there are those, and I know them too, in the North who will, as you say, suggest that the South is racist where the North is not; that wasn’t my point, and indeed, as a person of color, I’ve got the experiences to reinforce tat racism is indeed everywhere. My point is that the situations are simply different.

    Red gives a far more comprehensive answer about busing and Boston than I ever could, and I’d mostly leave it at that; but I woud add that I was part of the “suburban flight” she describes, as my initial schooling happened in the suburbs of Framingham and Sudbury. My childhood until about 7 was completely untouched by the busing story, and it was years before I found out just how many problems Boston had, or how amazing it was that my white mom and black dad even met and fell in love in a city like Boston where lives were in many ways so separate (both my Mom and her sister married men of color).

    However, it’s my own story that underlines the difference between North and South – at age 3 my parents couldn’t bring me, together, to meet my Grandmother in Vrginia. Indeed, they would not travel together into Virginia until some 5 years after the Loving vs. Virginia Supreme Court decision striking down miscegenation laws, because it wasn’t just fear of arrest, but fear of the countryside between Richmond and Suffolk, where my Gradmother lives, where we knew people’s attitudes were far less accepting no matter what a law might say.

    I have no illusions about racial politics in the northeast; there’s a lot up here that goes unsaid, and we are not anywhere near where some people would like to claim we are; but the South is different, and it still struggles with a kind of racism – as the Jena story suggests – that northerners simply don’t have.

    Finally, I’ll jjst add that I loved NOLA when I finally went there because it did seem to me to be far more mixed and realistic than many Southern places I’d seen – the Creole culture was the first time I’d seen a southern place where I felt I fit in. But that history of white, creole and black, is a complex, unique one to Louisiana. and that too, I think underlines the differences between regions.

  7. July 13, 2007 at 9:22 am

    Ah, regional differences! Finally, you’re all falling under my urban planning spell! 🙂

    Feels sort of awkward referring to someone as bigshot, btw. Like we’re insulting you! Oh yeah, bigshot?? 🙂

  8. 8 bigshot
    July 13, 2007 at 2:23 pm

    Maybe the real distinction is not North and South, but rural and non-rural. I can’t deny the isolation to these small towns like Jena and Virginia where the fear is real in a way that it would never be in a city like Boston or New Orleans. And frankly sometimes I forget the number of Confederate flags on proud display when driving through Mississippi, Alabama, and especially rural Virginia.

    Still, I do think that at least for Southern cities like New Orleans and Atlanta where it’s not just a minority-majority population but rather a majority black population there exists a dynamic where even the most racist white people have to find a way to overcome at least some of their prejudices if they want to prosper. This is just not the case in a place like Boston, where you can go days without having to interact with anyone of color, especially in business and political circles.

    But on this point, Leigh, I think you’re right on that it’s only a matter of time before “Massholes” become aware of the city’s changing demographic, and by then let’s hope the response is that of a world-class city.

    As for my silly blog alias, I’m kind of stuck with it. But I promise it was not created out of ego or homage to Billy Joel.

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