By Michael Abramowitz and Hamil R. Harris
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, February 13, 2008
President Bush warned yesterday that the United States is at risk of losing sight of past racial suffering, describing recent displays of nooses and jokes about lynching as "deeply offensive" in a speech to a largely African American audience invited to the White House.
Responding to news coverage of such episodes since the "Jena Six" case in Louisiana last fall, Bush said: "These disturbing reports have resulted in heightened racial tensions in many communities. They have revealed that some Americans do not understand why the sight of a noose causes such a visceral reaction among so many people."
The comments injected a note of sobriety into a largely festive gathering in the East Room to celebrate Black History Month that included a performance by the Motown group the Temptations. Among those present were several prominent African Americans who have not been shy about criticizing Bush's policies on affirmative action and other racial issues.
"This is a very strong statement," said the Rev. Al Sharpton, who was recognized by Bush from the dais. "I wish that he would add legislation to it, but I am glad that he has finally addressed this issue."
Bush's relations with the African American community have been tense throughout his presidency, but he has tried to mend fences in recent years. He appeared before the NAACP in 2006 after shunning the group his first five years in office.
His comments yesterday followed what experts say has been an upsurge in noose displays since mass protests erupted over what demonstrators called the overzealous prosecution of six black teenagers in Jena, La. The six were originally charged with attempted murder in the beating a of white classmate after white students hung three nooses from a schoolyard tree.
Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate crimes, said his group typically hears of six to 12 such noose cases a year but has seen roughly 70 since the case captured national headlines. "There's no question there was a real outbreak of noose incidents that was a response to Jena," he said.
Bush referred to the noose cases in his remarks yesterday. "Our nation has come a long way toward building a more perfect union," he said. "Yet as past injustices have become distant memories, there's a risk that our society may lose sight of the real suffering that took place. One symbol of that suffering is the noose."
Bush described the era of rampant lynching as a "shameful chapter" in U.S. history. "The noose is not a symbol of prairie justice, but of gross injustice," he said. "Displaying one is not a harmless prank. And lynching is not a word to be mentioned in jest."
Bush may have been referring to a joking reference last month by a Golf Channel commentator who said on the air that Tiger Woods's young opponents might have to "lynch him in a back alley" to challenge him. The announcer, Kelly Tilghman, was suspended for two weeks.
During yesterday's ceremony, Bush honored four African Americans for their roles in combating racial injustice: Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.); former transportation secretary William T. Coleman Jr.; Ernest Green, the first black man to graduate from Little Rock Central High School; and Otis Williams, an original member of the Temptations.