Friends of Justice Blog, November 9, 2007
Events in Jena, Louisiana, unearth the breakdown of race relations in America
by Marcia A. Wade
November 8, 2007–Despite America’s idyllic stance on racial tolerance, the last several months have seen an uptick in the number of reported noose incidents across the nation, believed to be prompted by events in Jena, Louisiana.In September 2006, several nooses, painted with school colors, were hung from a tree on school grounds at a public high school in Jena, allegedly after a black student asked the principal if black students could sit under that same tree, which reportedly had been reserved for white students. Over the next year, the town saw repeated altercations between black and white students including one incident in which six black teenagers were arrested after attacking a white teenager. It was the reported disparate punishments that sparked a demonstration where some 20,000 people protested the handling of the situation.
As America witnessed increased media coverage of the situation in Jena, there was also an increase in reports of “noose” intimidation across the country. Reports from the Southern Poverty Law Center suggest that in years past, noose sightings amounted to a half dozen to a dozen per year. That number has increased to 50 incidents in September alone since Jena’s media splash. “Jena did not create the racial hatred behind the hate crimes. It merely brought the bigotry and rage to the surface,” says Alan Bean, executive director for Friends of Justice, a criminal justice reform organization.
For many, such events show that even if the juveniles responsible for hanging the Jena nooses were ignorant to its symbolism, the act isn’t any less incendiary.
“Most white kids…most kids, really, don’t know the history of the Klan or lynching in America,” says Mark Potok, director of the Intelligence Project, the hate crimes division at the Southern Poverty Law Center. “At the end of the day, a noose is a simple message to understand. It means murder by hanging. It is a threat and it is unmistakable, no matter what amount of history you know or don’t know.”
“I think that the noose incidents [across the country] represent a very broad white backlash,” says Potok, who doesn’t think U.S. race relations are going very well. “Literally, tens of thousands of white people view Jena as an example of a complete distortion by the press and as a six on one, black on white hate crime.”
“It is perfectly obvious that as a society we are resegregating, residentially and especially educationally,” offers Potok. “In the last six years the number of hate groups in America by our count has gone up 40%.”
Potok suggests that hate crime offenders are scapegoating minorities for their anger over globalization, the flight of industry overseas, and increased Latino immigration.
“Black and white Americans need to have a good long talk about race,” says Bean. “The initial attempts at communication will likely generate more heat than light. But we’ve got to start somewhere and we need to be intentional.”
Historically, more than 4,700 people were reported murdered by lynch mobs in the U.S. Only in 2005 did Congress apologize to the families of lynching victims for their failure to enact anti-lynching laws.The Local Law Enforcement Hate Crime Prevention Act, passed in the House and the Senate, may give federal authorities greater ability to engage in hate crime investigations that local authorities choose not to pursue. However, President Bush has indicated that he will veto the legislation. According to an FBI spokesperson, it is up to the individual law enforcement agency to determine if a crime is a hate crime. The agency has to determine the motivation behind the incident in order to define it as a hate crime.
According to Sen. Mary L. Landrieu (D-La.), the district attorney for LaSalle Parrish said “he would not prosecute students who hung a noose in a tree because the state law prohibits only cross-burning.” Landrieu asked the Justice Department to review the Jena 6 cases and commissioned a Congressional Research Services Report on how various states treat the “displays of intimidating symbols,” such as nooses.
Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.), who sits on the House Judiciary Committee which oversees civil and criminal proceedings, civil liberties, criminal law enforcement, and federal courts, says “The solution lies in ensuring that competent and fair-minded individuals occupy the crucial positions in the justice process throughout America.”
Additional reporting by Leslie E. Royal