Monday, September 24, 2007

Jena 6 and White Complicity/Apathy

My delay in writing about the Jena 6 has been to give me time to read as much as possible about the case, and to read articles from all sides of the story. Just because something like "Free the Jena 6" is a supposed "progressive" or "liberal" cause, I'm not going to knee-jerk support it without educating myself.

To paraphrase and consolidate the various articles and websites I have read about the situation, this is what seems to have happened:

In a small Southern town that may or may not be "racially-divided," groups of white and black high schoolers threatened and attacked each other in various ways. One of these ways included the overtly racist act of some white kids hanging a noose on a tree the day after a black kid had sat under it. Since the noose incident, "both sides" had continued to attack and threaten each other- meaning black kids and white kids were attacked. After one particular attack on a white student by a group of black students (the so-called "Jena 6"), the black students were arrested and prosecuted, and later charged with attempted second degree murder (charges were later reduced). The students sat in jail for months, due to extremely high bails. As far as I could find, only one white student was arrested for attacking a black student. This student was later released and placed on probation.

So, to me, the injustice in the case is this:

1) White students were either not prosecuted for threats and/or assaults on black students or they were arrested and released on minor charges.

2) When the black students were arrested and prosecuted, the district attorney initially charged them not with "mere" assault and battery, but with attempted murder that could land them significant prison time.


3) The District Attorney pursued the case against the Jena 6 on trumped-up charges knowing the tense racial relations that had been occurring over the course of the past year or so. So, the Jena 6 did commit a crime (allegedly). But, the black students who attacked a white student were charged with attempted murder, and the white student who attacked a black student was released on probation. This disparity sends a message to the black community, to everyone really, that white lives are worth more than black lives. That, it doesn't matter if the futures of a bunch of black kids are thrown away and who cares if they sit in prison for 20 years.

So, while some may believe that the "Jena 6" incident has been overblown and people are overreacting, the message that it sends is one that has been a recurring theme throughout our nation's criminal justice history.

Now, this happened in the South. As someone who spent many a youthful summer in Mississippi, I know that the South is, um.... different than many places. But we also shouldn't be too quick to stereotype everyone down there. Undoubtedly, there are good and bad people on "both sides." But I do question why no adult stepped in during the course of these events and said "enough."

But, what is happening in Jena, and why I think so many from all over the country are protesting, is because it's a caricature of the racial inequality that is inherent in our criminal justice system nationwide. And, even if the facts are disputed in the incident, public outcry and protests are turning it into the Rosa Parks of the criminal justice sytem. For, inequalities are present throughout the system- from the "war on drugs," the death penalty, "driving while black," to disparities in sentencing. Many black people know about these inequalities. Many white people have the luxury of not having to know about them.

This incident is symptomatic of racially-biased prosecutorial discretion that those of us on the outside of the system have the privilege not to think about. Those of us on the outside have normalized this as just some hassle that black people have to deal with. Or worse, some people think, " people are inherently more violent than other groups." As though violence and crime happen in a vaccum and all social, economic, and racism factors are equal because this is America.

To riff off of one of Teh Portly Dyke's latest blogs who says:

Human beings are incredibly adaptable. A teacher of mine once said: "The mind can make 'normal' out of anything". I have found that this is true, and it is sometimes a little scary to me how quickly we can come to accept something that would have had us foaming at the mouth in the past.

Frankly, I think some white people are tired of hearing about racism, are tired of hearing about "white privilege," and are tired of hearing about the effects of slavery. They are tired of hearing about these things because many of them don't understand. Racism and white privilege still exist, of course, and the effects of slavery continue to linger. But thinking about race and racism makes some feel guilty or angry. And, working class white people, who are struggling to make ends meet in their own lives, don't want to hear about this "invisible knapsack" of privileges they supposedly have because they're white.

Many white people have the luxury of never having to think about race, because to be white in the US is to be "without a race"- it is to be the "norm." As man is the default gender for human beings, white people often see themselves as the default race for human beings in this country (and the world?). For example, TV sitcoms about the lives of white people are for all people, yet sitcoms about the lives of black people are "black shows."

And, when we're not ignoring race and privilege, we resign ourselves to a "Well, I'm not racist but I can't change the minds of bigots" shrug and forget the issue because it doesn't affect us personally. And in the meantime, the overt and covert bigotry of others becomes normalized. It becomes just a part of society. We get used to it.

The Jena 6 incident is a reminder that what is going on in our criminal justice system is something that we should not have adapted to but that many, unfortunately, have. A group of people are suffering the consequences, while others have the luxury not to care. We go shopping, we buy our Starbucks, we go out on the weekends and we just don't have to care.

Or so we think.

But really, an injust system is counting on our complicity, or apathy, in this case to legitimize injustice.

And so in this small way, I have consciously chosen to write about race and the Jena 6 to add my voice to the growing criticism of the inequality in our criminal justice system. As a white person, I am okay admitting that yes, white people do have privileges in this country that people of other races, black people in particular, do not have. At this point, I don't know what to tangibly do about white privilege, but admitting it is the first step, as they say.

My hope is that others will read this article and try to think about the ways that race affects us all, and- instead of getting defensive- to acknowledge privileges they have that others may not. Privileges based on our race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, able-bodiedness, and more.

It is when we deny that bigotry exists, when we falsely think "there are equal rights laws, therefore inequality doesn't happen anymore," and when we defensively declare that majority groups don't have privileges, that bigotry and inequality become "normalized." Injustice affects all of us. And, to be silent in the face of bigotry and injustice is to be a participant in it.

If we have any collective conscience, we will start caring about the injustices that affect other people more directly than they affect us.

Finally, at the risk of sounding cliched, I'm going to end on this relevant quote.....

When the Nazis came for the communists,
I remained silent;
I was not a communist.

When they locked up the social democrats,
I remained silent;
I was not a social democrat.

When they came for the trade unionists,
I did not speak out;
I was not a trade unionist.

When they came for the Jews,
I remained silent;
I wasn't a Jew.

When they came for me,
there was no one left to speak out.

-Pastor Martin Niemöller (1892–1984)

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