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.Â 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.Â
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.Â As my work in the Gulf deepens, I am increasingly accepting work that seeks to redress the endemic, systemicÂ inequities of racism and poverty that strangled too many communities for eons prior to the suffocating chokehold of the 2005 hurricane season.Â As my collaborative efforts stretch beyond the boundaries of New Orleans, evenÂ 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.Â 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.Â
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.Â
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.Â The following day, three nooses hung from the tree.Â Though the school principal recommended the students responsible be expelled, the Parish superintendent overruled him and suspended the perpetrators for three days.Â 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.Â 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.Â Â Across these altercations, the white instigators were never or modestly charged for their aggression; inÂ 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.Â The first has been convicted, by an all-white juryÂ 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.Â Â
Lydia, along with herÂ 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.”Â Please, just take a look at some of the links below.Â 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.Â I particularly like this blogger and this local (LA) newscast on the Jena trial because of the diverse comments from readers that follow.Â Jena, by most accounts, until these last months, was a peaceful place to live, and folks are clearly agonized over this fall out.Â For some it’s the unwanted scrutiny of their lives and their town, for others it is the long overdue airing ofÂ the racist dirty laundryÂ 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 â€” 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.Â (The link, unfortunately,Â isn’t working.)Â I was in New Orleans at the time, and wrote a long, confessionalÂ comment in response to her fair and righteous anger.Â 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.Â
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.Â The nine member all-male school board has one African American member.Â (A phone caller to the local school board trying to find out the racial makeup of the school board was told there was one â€œcoloredâ€? member of the board).Â 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.Â Families earn about 60% of the national average.Â 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.Â “We don’t have a problem,â€? according to one.Â 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.“