When more than 10,000 people converged on the small town of Jena, La., last Friday, the Rev. Al Sharpton called their march the beginning of the 21st-century civil rights movement. He may be right. And that's just what's worrisome. The marchers gathered to protest criminal charges brought against six African-American high-school students, the "Jena 6." But the racial problems facing this town—and many others—are more complex than simple prejudice, and finding solutions will necessarily require more nuance than a mass protest can offer. The mismatch between the complex and layered racial tensions in Jena and the one-issue rallying cry of "Free the Jena 6" suggest that the tactics of last century's civil rights movement may be an anachronism for today's racial conflicts.
The Jena 6 were accused of beating and kicking a white classmate until he lost consciousness. The district attorney charged the six assailants with attempted murder—an absurdly severe charge under the circumstances—and then later, perhaps under pressure, reduced the charges to aggravated battery. The district attorney also improperly tried one student, Mychal Bell, as an adult and obtained a conviction for aggravated battery and conspiracy, which was duly vacated on appeal. It's plausible that this prosecutorial overzealousness was inspired by racial prejudice, but even privileged white people can fall victim to overzealous prosecutors—ask the Duke lacrosse team. So, how did a case of prosecutorial overreaching, which is tragically all too common, turn into a civil rights violation?
The hard evidence of racism in Jena showed up months before the assault, in the form of a noose tied to an oak tree. This incident was straight out of a story from the Old South: A black student at Jena High School asked at a student assembly if he could sit under a large oak tree that was unofficially called the "white tree" because white students gathered under it in Jena High's informally segregated campus. The principal told the assembly that any student could sit wherever he or she liked. After the assembly, several black students sat under the "white tree." The next day, white students hung three nooses from the tree. The school principal recommended their expulsion, but the school board instead suspended them from school for three days.
Racial tensions simmered in the following months and eventually boiled over in a series of physical confrontations. A white man threatened black Jena students with a beer bottle at an off-campus party and was charged with misdemeanor assault. A white student brandished a shotgun in a confrontation with three black students. (He claims self-defense; they claim he was unprovoked.) The black students then wrestled the gun away from him and were later charged with theft, while the white student was not charged with a crime. Then came the attack for which the Jena 6 were charged.
The Jena 6 and their defenders claim that the assault was a direct result of racial tensions that started with the nooses. They claim the white student who took the beating taunted the black students with racial epithets in what should be seen as one part of an ongoing campaign of racial harassment. And many see racism in the stark contrast between the slaps on the wrists that the noose-wielders and gun-brandisher and other whites involved in the later fights received, and the hard-line prosecution of the Jena 6. As one of the protesters put it: "Every time the white people did something … they dropped it, and every time the black people did something, they blew it out of proportion."
The disparity is striking, and it's plausible that racism was behind it. But the various incidents aren't really comparable. At most, the nooses threatened violence that was never carried out. By contrast, the Jena 6 were charged with an assault that resulted in physical injury. The more serious racial problem—and the root cause of the Jena 6 altercation—was that students at Jena High School had effectively re-created Jim Crow segregation on an informal basis—instead of whites-only bathrooms and drinking fountains, they had a "white tree" that black students considered off-limits. Such informal segregation is commonplace at racially mixed high schools (and universities). And if other cities and schools are any indication, black self-segregation along with white racism may have played a role. Reportedly, Jena High also had "black bleachers" where white students did not sit.