REFLECTIONS ON JENA, BY A WHITE SOUTHERNER
Troy D. Smith
October 3, 2007
The events which have transpired over the past year in Jena, Louisiana –once brought into the national spotlight and thus into my own awareness –surprised, outraged, and saddened me, as they did many others in this nation. One hopes that those events do not now fade into the oblivion of the news-cycle, to be replaced in our national psyche by the latest dysfunctional celebrity or murder mystery. I personally knew few of the facts until the massive demonstrations were launched in that town, and reported in the national papers, or else I would have tried to be there demonstrating as well. I even missed the demonstration on my own campus, as I did not hear about it until after I had left town for the weekend.
Perhaps then you may wonder what I could have to say, so long after the fact, and what pertinence it could have. It is actually the news coverage of the demonstrations which has set me thinking in the last few days. Before I go into detail on those reflections, in case you are one of the few who is still uninformed, let me briefly outline the events in question.
Last fall, in this small Louisiana town that is about 85% white, black students asked the high school principal if they could sit under the tree on campus whose shade was traditionally reserved for whites. “You can sit where you want,” he said, and the next morning some white students placed nooses in the tree, a chilling reminder of the days when lynch law was freely dispensed in support of Jim Crow policies. The white students were expelled, but the principal was over-ridden by the school board and the punishment was confined to a slap on the wrist and a “boys will be boys” attitude. The racial friction thus generated led to several altercations. In one, a white student brandished a shotgun at some blacks whom he felt were threatening him; they wrestled his gun away, and were arrested for theft of a firearm, second-degree robbery, and disturbing the peace. The armed white student was not arrested. In another altercation, six black students beat a white student, giving him a concussion; five of them were charged with attempted murder, and one –age 16 –was tried as an adult. This clear disparity in legal treatment received by different races is blatant and unconscionable, as were the events leading up to the fight.
Media reports about the demonstrations held in support of the “Jena Six” indicate that the demonstrators were black (and no doubt most of them were.) Counter demonstrations were launched by white supremacists. When speaking of these groups, the media’s use of the term “black demonstrators” and “white demonstrators” are equal to “anti-racism demonstrators” and “pro-racism demonstrators.” Now, I was not there, though I wish I had been—but I am sure there must have been some non-black supporters of the Jena Six there somewhere. If not, I am seriously concerned about the state of this nation. The very fact that the media could successfully make it seem that only blacks were concerned about racial justice, while whites were there to prevent it, is troubling. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton on one side, David Duke and sundry skinheads on the other.
Let us assume that the white presence among the anti-racism demonstrators was not significant enough to stand out. What does that imply? Do today’s white students believe that opposing racism is a passé cause? That the Civil Rights Movement occurred –so long ago, in their eyes –and the monster was slain? Or, worse, that race is a black problem, to be handled by blacks alone? Because friends, Jena, Louisiana –like Hurricane Katrina –have proven that racism is alive in America. Not the subtle, whispered kind practiced by some taxi drivers or store clerks, but the full-fledged, virulent sort which we are used to seeing only in black and white newsreels. We may comfort ourselves by saying that we slew that serpent long ago (I will not dignify it by calling it a dragon); the sibilant hissing issuing from the shadows of our country says otherwise.
In the 1960s, some white Southerners feared that the Civil Rights Movement would destroy their way of life. It did not. It scoured away some of the ugliest parts of a way of life, driving them into the darkness for a time, but at the same time it redeemed the South. It was no longer necessary for whites to defend an indefensible tradition; they could let go of it and move forward. White Southerners like myself, although still ashamed of what we used to be, no longer had to be ashamed of what we are. We were freed from our own ignorance. The generation of white Southerners born during that time period –such as myself –was born into a world where MLK could be embraced as a hero by all and segregation was unimaginable. “The South has changed,” we could tell people, especially our northern black friends. “It’s not so scary or crazy anymore.”
And then we have Jena. Attitudes which we held unthinkable in a civilized place have crept back, if indeed they ever bothered to hide at all, and once again we are all equated with Klansmen and neo-Nazis. Like Lynrd Skynrd, I have never forgiven Neil Young for his song “Southern Man” –because it unfairly painted us all with the same bloody brush, when there have been Southern men (and women) working side by side with their black brothers and sisters against injustice from the days of Reconstruction to the Civil Rights Movement to today. All of that is lost in the shuffle when a bunch of hooligans start brandishing nooses.
This means that white students –especially, in my opinion, Southern white students –have to get involved. They have to do something. They must pitch in, in solidarity and in sufficient numbers, with their brothers and sisters of color. The next demonstrations over Jena, or Katrina, or whatever the next locus of racism may be, must be converged on by all of us, together, united. And we who are white must make it absolutely clear that we are outraged –that we renounce and denounce this behavior –that it may be our past, and there’s nothing we can do about that, but it is not our present and it is damn sure not our future. Our silence is complicit agreement –so the time to be silent is past. We have to stop being in the sort of fugue I have been in lately –so caught up in the daily travail of grad school that I am unaware of important causes and demonstrations –and start looking for opportunities to be heard. The next time something like this happens I would like to see students of all races pouring in by the busload –with enough whites that observers find it noteworthy, not because we are trying to colonize a movement or paternalistically take charge or credit, but because we recognize that our futures are at stake too, and that liberty and justice must be for all.
In Chicago in the 1960s, the Black Panthers joined forces with the Young Lords and the Young Patriots –radical Marxists all –to form the first incarnation of the Rainbow Coalition. The Young Lords were Puerto Rican; the Young Patriots were white Appalachians, children of Southerners who had moved north after World War II to find factory jobs and who worked to maintain their cultural heritage –minus the racism. Panthers, Lords and Patriots worked together to serve their neighborhoods and monitor the police, a perfect example of racial cooperation without co-option which would serve us all well today.
Because, again, the serpent is not dead. The longer it is ignored the stronger it gets. We cannot rest on the laurels of past victories. We have to drag that snake out into the light and beat the shit out of it, together.
Power to the people.
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