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It's the Same Old Story in Jena Today

By Beverly Daniel Tatum
Sunday, September 23, 2007

Fifty years ago today, nine African American teenagers in Little Rock were escorted into Central High School by National Guardsmen while an angry white mob hurled racial epithets.

Last week, thousands of marchers protested the plight of six young African American high school students charged with attempted murder in the beating of a white classmate in Jena, La. They were treated much more harshly than white teenagers who beat up a black student in the town.

The two cases are divided by context, circumstances and 50 years, but at the heart of the conflicts is a fight over something as fundamental as space in a toxic racial climate. In 1957, the contested space was a white school that was formally placed off limits to black students. In Jena, it was the "white tree," a privileged spot of shade from the hot Louisiana sun. It seemed to have been reserved for white use only and it was part of the series of events that led to the Jena controversy.

In some ways, these sorts of disputes are familiar at high schools nationwide. Students and parents in racially mixed high schools so often ask, "Why are all the black kids sitting together in the cafeteria?" that I made the query the title of my 1997 book -- though it is not just the black kids who group together. I found that the answers to this question vary. Sometimes it's adolescents exploring their racial identities, sometimes it's a strategy for coping with racial isolation.

In 1957, the Little Rock 9 sat together for protection in a hostile community bent on preserving the symbols of white supremacy. In Jena today, maintaining white privilege appeared to be the priority, and the whole community suffered as a result.

While much can be said about the obvious racial disparities in the criminal justice system brought to light by the Jena 6 case, we should also ask what could have been done to prevent the violence. What kind of dialogue about race and racism might have led to a more hopeful outcome?

Consider this: On Aug. 31, 2006, a black high school student asked the principal whether he could sit under the "white tree." "Sit wherever you want," the administrator replied. Students arrived at school the next day to find three nooses hanging from the tree. The black residents of Jena saw the nooses as a vivid, threatening reminder of the thousands of African Americans who were lynched in the United States between 1882 and 1968 -- an unmistakable message to "stay in their place."

The principal expelled the three white students who hung the nooses, sending a clear signal that "hate behavior" was unacceptable. But that message was undercut by the school board and the superintendent, who reduced the punishment to a three-day in-school suspension. They dismissed the act as an "adolescent prank," unwilling to acknowledge the enduring power of the noose as a symbol of racial hatred and intimidation.

Reed Walters, the local district attorney, spoke at a hastily planned assembly and admonished the protesting students to stop complaining about an "innocent prank." He allegedly added insult to injury by threatening the protesters: "See this pen? I can end your lives with the stroke of a pen."

A few days later, several dozen black students tried to bring their concerns to the school board, only to be silenced because the board thought that the noose incident had been handled appropriately. Racial tensions simmered throughout the fall but did not erupt until Nov. 30, 2006, when an arsonist -- whose race is unknown -- set the high school on fire.

Instead of suppressing dialogue, Jena could have treated the noose incident as a teachable moment -- a catalyst for important discussions about the history of race relations in Louisiana and beyond. For instance, Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana could have explained to the Jena assembly why she introduced a resolution on Feb. 7, 2005, apologizing that the Senate hadn't passed anti-lynching legislation despite repeated attempts throughout the 20th century.

White students might then have realized, in the words of her resolution, that "the crime of lynching succeeded slavery as the ultimate expression of racism in the United States following Reconstruction." They could have begun to understand why the hanging of a noose could never be seen as an innocent prank.

For many years, I taught a course on the psychology of racism and led professional-development workshops for teachers. Most of the teachers I worked with were white, and they often remarked about how uncomfortable they were talking to students, especially in racially mixed settings, about the nation's painful heritage on race.

One elementary-school teacher said: "It is hard to tell small children about slavery, hard to explain that black young men were lynched, that police turned fire hoses on children while other men bombed churches, killing black children at their prayers. This history is a terrible legacy for all of us." Another teacher confessed that she could not look her students in the face when she taught such topics. It was too painful, too embarrassing.

But silence is not the answer. We can engage students -- from preschool through college -- in age-appropriate conversations about our collective past that take us beyond the usual talk of victims and victimizers. In the aftermath of the noose incident, history teachers at Jena High School could have talked about the courage of Ida B. Wells, an African American woman who led an anti-lynching campaign in the late 19th and early 20th century. Wells's campaign, which garnered international attention, still provides a lesson in empowerment for black students who all too often see themselves depicted in history only as victims. And white Jena students could have learned about the white supporters who joined Wells in her campaign to end this form of terrorism, a potential source of pride for those who don't want to identify with the role of victimizer.

The weeks that followed the noose incident could have led to a cross-racial dialogue in Jena, bringing together a coalition of parents to talk about how they might reduce racial tension in the school. Clergy members -- black and white -- could have created opportunities for residents of this small town to take a stand against bigotry, a "not in our town" kind of demonstration seen several years ago in Montana, where Jewish residents were being targeted with anti-Semitic graffiti, fliers and vandalism.

Such interventions may be difficult in this small mill town, where racial tensions have existed for years. But we will never know what might have been accomplished. What is certain is that in the absence of dialogue, violence erupted. The school burned, multiple fights broke out, whites and blacks were injured, and the lives of six young black men were placed in limbo.

In the end, the tree -- the source of shade and the symbol of separation -- was cut down. Now there is no refuge for anyone, and it feels like Little Rock all over again.

Landrieu's 2005 resolution concludes that we must remember our history "to ensure that these tragedies will be neither forgotten nor repeated." Next time, can we talk about race?

Beverly Daniel Tatum is president of Spelman College and the author, most recently, of "Can We Talk About Race? And Other Conversations in an Era of School Resegregation."

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