Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

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.

September 21, 2007 - Posted by | human rights., race


  1. It’s amazing how the black community can rally itself to free every derelict black criminal. If the white people were to pull something like that…good lord how rev. Al would rush to a TV camera immediately.

    If black people would gather the facts before rushing to the camera to declare how unfair they were being treated, maybe I’d have a little more sympathy for their cause. But Al doesn’t care about facts. He cares about getting camera time.

    Comment by Mark Ellis | September 21, 2007

  2. Mark, do you think these 6 youths are “derelict black criminals?” This is not about Al Sharpton, who has certainly played the race card inappropriately in times past. This story has been simmering for months. Everyone interviewed in news stories has seemed to know the facts well. I summarized the facts and linked to several in-depth recitations of the facts–they’ve long been out there. You seem to be saying that these 6 boys should pay a price because other “derelict black criminals” have unfairly been championed by some activists like Sharpton. If that is your attitude, it is racist.

    I submit to you that white people do rush to free “derelict white criminals” all the time–like Scooter Libby. But also, I could show you stats after stats of unfair treatment in the courts which show that whites don’t have to take to the streets–the courts free our derelicts for us.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | September 21, 2007

  3. […] the moderate Christian blogroll Michael Westmoreland-Smith has written a post on the Jena 6, titled Racial Bias in the U.S. Courts: The Case of the Jena 6. He appears to have been following the case fairly closely, though this is the first time he has […]

    Pingback by Threads from Henry’s Web » Blog Archive » Afternoon Links (9/21/07) | September 21, 2007

  4. While I appreciate the link from Henry’s Web, my name is not Westmoreland-Smith, but Westmoreland-White.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | September 21, 2007

  5. And I apologize for the error in the name. I have no idea where I got “Smith” from. Nonetheless, you wrote a good post and I’m glad to call attention to it.

    Comment by Henry Neufeld | September 21, 2007

  6. Michael, I’m not saying they should pay the price because others were unfairly championed by activists. However, if I was, I don’t think that’s racist. I think it just means that I am unfairly judging the criminals based on the activists who champion them.

    That being said, I DO believe that I feel less sympathy for their cause when the likes of Al Sharpton come to their defense. Jesse Jackson, not so much. I have much more respect for him. But criminals are criminals. They beat someone up, I’m happy to see them go away for a while (or whatever the law dictates).

    As for Scooter Libby, that issue seems to be more about government coverup rather than just simple white men protecting other white men.

    Comment by Mark Ellis | September 21, 2007

  7. I have been extremely disappointed in what has been occurring in Jena. I became aware of it months ago when I heard a profile on Democracy Now. I am astounded at how Michael Bell still remains in jail in light of much of the mistreatment he has faced at the hands of the “justice” system.

    Comment by Dustin | September 22, 2007

  8. […] own experience suddenly when I was reading a post on this issue from Michael L. Westmoreland-White, Racial Bias in the U.S. Courts: The Case of the Jena 6, when something clicked for me. I know conversations on this topic are difficult. We need to take a […]

    Pingback by Threads from Henry’s Web » Blog Archive » Race and the Legal System: A Perspective Check | October 8, 2007

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