Lydia Bean, founding member of Friends of Justice, blogs on Jena at Foresight:
It wasn’t surprising that race relations in Jena, Louisiana deteriorated after white students hung three nooses in a tree at the high school, to warn black students not to sit in the “white” side of the schoolyard. After this hate crime went unpunished by the school principal, white and black kids got into several fights around town. The white residents of Jena weren’t indignant about the nooses, but they were indignant about black kids defending themselves from white racial attacks. After a fight between black and white kids, only the black kids were prosecuted—for attempted murder.
The blogosphere has exploded with interest in this case, after the faith-based organization Friends of Justice worked to attract attention. But much coverage of this incident shows a fundamental misunderstanding of both progressive identity and the nature of the problem. Many bloggers across the nation are clicking their tongues about Jena as a vestige of the old Jim Crow, and despairing that progressive politics could ever flourish there, in that muggy, exotic, backward place we call “The South”. What progressives don’t realize is that the South is Us. Repeat after me, progressives: The South is Us. The progressive movement shouldn’t think of itself as a beleaguered minority of intellectuals who hide out in Berkeley and New York City, rolling their eyes at those backward yokels in “The South.” That’s a recipe for bad strategic thinking and in-group dogmatism. And it also misunderstands the causes of racial inequality in our criminal justice system.
Because there’s nothing exotic about Jena, Louisiana, except that the white kids got away with hanging three nooses in the public school. The sad truth is that young black men are routinely demonized by police and prosecutors all over America. Our nation has set up a direct pipeline from high school to prison for young poor black men, so that we have more black men in prison than in college. And for the most part, nobody cares unless someone does something exotic like hang up a noose. Without the nooses, nobody would have cared if these young men had been prosecuted on bad evidence on a petty charge, and thrown away for life like so many of their generation. Jena isn’t about the old Jim Crow, it’s about the New Jim Crow.
In the New Jim Crow, life is better for middle-class black people who can get a college education and move in white circles. But life is even worse for poor black people, who face higher rates of wrongful prosecution and conviction than in the darkest days of the old Jim Crow. Before, poor black people shared a racial apartheid with middle class black people. Now, prison has become routine for poor black youth, and poor black neighborhoods are torn apart by the combination of high crime and high rates of imprisonment that break up families and ruin lives.
And now, in Jena, the New Jim Crow is being challenged by Friends of Justice, the NAACP and the ACLU, and the brave local families who won’t let their son’s lives be destroyed because of a schoolyard fight. All of these people are from the South, these local progressive activists as well as their opponents. What you’re seeing is not just the backwardness of Louisiana, because the New Jim Crow regime covers the whole the United States. Really, this scandal means that progressives are having greater SUCCESS in Louisiana than anywhere in the country. What you’re seeing is an outbreak of true democracy in Louisiana, an unprecedented progressive victory for poor black communities that bodes well for our nation as a whole.
So instead of using this as an occasion to feel superior to those rednecks in Louisiana, take a moment to celebrate that progressives are achieving victories in the most unlikely of places. The only reason that this scandal is happening in Louisiana is because some of the nation’s most talented progressive organizers are operating in Louisiana. If we progressive Southerners organized in your state, we’d embarrass the living daylights out of your local police and prosecutor too. The South is us: we’re birthing a new progressive movement in Louisiana that is vibrant, multiracial, and comfortable with the language of faith. Don’t be content to click your tongues at how backwards the South is. Send Friends of Justice a check to support our organizing, and look forward to the day when our movement will spread from Texas and Louisiana into California and Massachusetts. And then the progressive movement can work together to overturn the New Jim Crow across the nation.