Racism – A National Embarrassment

by Steve Coll October 8, 2007

Just over a year ago, during a high-school assembly in Jena, Louisiana, a black student asked the school’s white principal if it would be all right to sit under an oak tree outside, an oasis of shade known as the “white tree,” because only Caucasian students congregated there. The principal said that the young man could sit where he liked. Later, the student and some African-American friends walked over to the oak and chatted with some white schoolmates. The next day, somebody fixed two nooses to the tree’s branches.

The ropes inaugurated a narrative of conflict and small-town justice in the Deep South known today as the case of the Jena Six, a story populated by a disconcerting number of stock characters from the late Jim Crow era. Its origins signalled a theatrical quality that a swelling cast, including the Reverend Al Sharpton, has managed to sustain; an Off Broadway production (backlit oak tree, gentle wind machines, soliloquies about past and present) seems inevitable.

Although some of the evidence in the Jena case is murky, a cumulative verdict of racial double standards lies beyond reasonable doubt. Between Reconstruction and the end of the Second World War, more than two hundred and fifty people in Louisiana, the great majority of them African-Americans, were lynched. Jena’s recent noosemakers, identified as a trio of white students, were recommended for expulsion by the principal, who was evidently conscious of this history, but a white school superintendent imposed suspensions only, on the ground that the tree display was a prank. In the days leading up to that decision, fights had erupted between black and white students, and the local district attorney, Reed Walters, reportedly gave a speech in which he warned students, “With a stroke of my pen, I can make your lives disappear.”

Last December, at the school, a black student coldcocked a white student, Justin Barker, knocking him briefly unconscious; other black students allegedly kicked the victim while he lay on the ground. Barker was treated for cuts and bruises at a hospital and released a few hours later. The police arrested six black students, aged fourteen to eighteen, and Walters charged them with attempted second-degree murder and a conspiracy count; if convicted, they faced up to seventy-five years in prison.

Jena prosecutors started reducing the charges to aggravated second-degree battery and conspiracy. Still, last June an all-white jury convicted one of the defendants, Mychal Bell, who was sixteen years old at the time of the assault, of crimes that threatened him with up to twenty-two years in an adult state prison. Michael Baisden, a black syndicated radio talk-show host who normally specializes in romance and its perils, undertook an on-air protest, along with others, which spread across black radio and then to the Internet. In late September, thousands of demonstrators descended on Jena. Last Thursday, Bell, whose convictions had been thrown out, was released on bail, after ten months in jail; Reed Walters has agreed to retry him as a juvenile.

Last week, in the Times, Walters defended his work; he described himself as just “a lawyer obligated to enforce the laws of my state.” A devotion to the sanctity of statutes is, of course, essential in a nation governed by laws, but equally important is the exercise of prosecutorial discretion, derived from an intuitive commitment to fairness and common sense. If Walters had possessed a modest measure of such judgment, he might have rescued himself and the town of Jena from notoriety many months ago.

His bullheadedness, however, does not explain why Jena’s narrative has resonated so broadly. Many African-Americans understand the case not only as the civil-rights era redux but as a stark illustration of a here-and-now problem, one about which whites are mainly silent: the mass incarceration of black youths—America’s “school-to-prison pipeline,” as some scholars have christened it.

The number of blacks in prison has quadrupled since 1980. There are many overlapping causes, among them severe automated federal sentencing rules; a passionate but badly managed “war on drugs” prosecuted most heavily in African-American neighborhoods; and deepening inequalities in personal income and access to education, whose effects fall hardest on urban teen-agers. One study estimates that, if recent trends continue, a third of the black males born in 2001 can expect to do time.

The state of Louisiana, true to its reputation for rococo extremism in all matters political, locks up in prison a higher percentage of its population—black, white, and all other races combined—than any other state in the nation. It might be of some comfort to politicians, then, if the Jena case, like the disgraceful treatment of displaced African-American victims of Hurricane Katrina, could be rationalized as an isolated, swamp-inspired exception to a more temperate American norm.

The opposite is true, however. In July, the Sentencing Project, a research and advocacy group, released a state-by-state study of prison populations that identified where blacks endured the highest rates of incarceration. The top four states were South Dakota, Wisconsin, Iowa, and Vermont; the top ten included Utah, Montana, and Colorado—not places renowned for their African-American subcultures. In the United States today, driving while black—or shoplifting while black, or taking illegal drugs, or hitting schoolmates—often carries the greatest risk of incarceration, in comparison to the risk faced by whites, in states where people of color are rare, including a few states that are liberal, prosperous, and not a little self-satisfied. Ex-slave states that are relatively poor and have large African-American populations, such as Louisiana, display less racial disparity.

Discrimination in the American justice system is not only a Deep South thing; it is a national embarrassment. Tocqueville, who initially came to America to study its penal system, might wonder how a democracy can so earnestly debate the justice of detaining foreign nationals at Guantánamo while displaying not a whiff of discomfort about the record number of its own citizens—now more than two million—stuffed into jails and prisons, or about the causes of racial disparity in this forgotten population. America’s predominant response to racism, of course, has long been denial. In Jena, the town fathers effected a vivid evasion. Their problem, they concluded, was not themselves but their tree: they cut down the offending oak and hauled it away.


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