Racial Bias in the U.S. Courts: The Case of the Jena 6
Giving credit where credit is due, I first became aware of the Jena 6 case from Mikeal Broadway this past summer. See his posts here, here, here, here, and here. Thanks to Mike, a fellow Baptist ethicist and peace blogger, I followed this case which stayed off the front pages until yesterday. I signed petitions, I asked the governor of Louisiana to grant pardons. But I didn’t use this forum to highlight the injustice and for that I repent.
The facts are not in dispute. For decades in the tiny Louisiana town of Jena, whites at the local high school had claimed exclusive rights to sit under a certain tree, which they called the “white tree.” After an African-American student sought and received permission from the principal to sit there (to give credit, the principal denied that it was a “white tree”) and did so, white students hung nooses from the tree. A few were suspended for two days, but none were charged in any criminal case. The D.A. considered the noose incident “a prank.” Tensions quickly escalated between white and black students. After some slurs and taunts, 6 black students attacked a white student (one of those involved in the noose incident) and hit and kicked him until he was taken to the hospital. The students were not suspended for fighting. Instead, the D.A. had them all arrested and charged with attempted murder.
One of the 6 was convicted, but this conviction was overturned on appeal and he awaits new charges in jail. The other 5 remain out on bail, awaiting trial. The D.A. insists the case has nothing to do with race and is determined to put all 6 behind bars for years.
No one denies the 6 were wrong and deserved some punishment, but outrage in this case has to do with the disparity of treatment. The noose “prank” could have been prosecuted as a hate crime or as terrorizing harassment, or similar charges, but wasn’t. The white kids were slapped on the wrist and the black kids are having the book thrown at them.
The outrage is also because, unfortunately, this is not an isolated incident. This is part of a larger pattern STILL in the U.S. legal system. We all know the stories: African-American men are far more likely to be pulled over by police (“driving while black”) than whites. Wealthy African-Americans are often arrested in their own neighborhoods at night because their presence is “suspicious” (i.e., they aren’t “supposed” to live in those neighborhoods). Whites arrested on drug charges are often given suspended sentences, probation, or rehab while African-Americans on the same charges, with the same amounts of controlled substances, etc. are given harsh prison time. In murder cases, if the victim is white and the accused black, the chances that a D.A. will ask for the death penalty rather than life more than triple. And on and on it goes. My hometown newspaper reported today that a study by the city found that African-Americans are woefully underrepresented on juries, both civil and criminal.
Yes, folks, conservatives to the contrary, racism is alive and well in U.S. society and our legal system. Do some people falsely make everything about race? Undoubtedly. But such false “playing of the race card” only works at all because widespread racial disparities in so many areas actually exist. For every O.J. Simpson who gets away with something (in his case, murdering his wife) by playing the race card, thousands of African-Americans get rigged courts and disparate treatment.
It’s time to end this. It’s time to rededicate ourselve to working for racial justice and an end to racial injustice–here and around the world. For those of us who are Christians, this is mandated by our faith–and by the often-shameful history of our churches.
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