Can we talk about race?

The Jena story has revealed an uncomfortable truth: America remains a highly segregated nation.  The problem is getting worse, not better.  Segregation creates two distinct sets of life experience.  The experience gap produces a perception gap.  So how do we fix the problem?

Marcia Wade and Leslie Royal of Black put that question to a number of people.  Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center says that American children need to learn about America’s troubled racial history.  I say we need a new conversation among American adults–especially white and black adults.  Unfortunately, most Americans are hoping that if we pretend racism isn’t a problem it won’t be. 

This hope is naive but it is also understandable.  When Americans talk about race, we don’t converse, we don’t listen, we tend to approach the issue not as students hoping to learn someting but as combatants looking to crush and embarrass the opposition. 

Most of us would just as soon avoid the subject altogether.  We retreat into tribal enclaves where everyone sees things the way we do.  Since we say there’s no problem, and everyone around us agrees–there is no problem; unless, that is, we step out of our comfort zone.

Can we talk about race?  Please give this timely article a quick read and give us your reaction.

A Lot of Nooses, Not Enough Talk

Events in Jena, Louisiana, unearth the breakdown of race relations in America

by Marcia A. Wade

November 8, 2007–Despite America’s idyllic stance on racial tolerance, the last several months have seen an uptick in the number of reported noose incidents across the nation, believed to be prompted by events in Jena, Louisiana.In September 2006, several nooses, painted with school colors, were hung from a tree on school grounds at a public high school in Jena, allegedly after a black student asked the principal if black students could sit under that same tree, which reportedly had been reserved for white students. Over the next year, the town saw repeated altercations between black and white students including one incident in which six black teenagers were arrested after attacking a white teenager. It was the reported disparate punishments that sparked a demonstration where some 20,000 people protested the handling of the situation.

As America witnessed increased media coverage of the situation in Jena, there was also an increase in reports of “noose” intimidation across the country. Reports from the Southern Poverty Law Center suggest that in years past, noose sightings amounted to a half dozen to a dozen per year. That number has increased to 50 incidents in September alone since Jena’s media splash. “Jena did not create the racial hatred behind the hate crimes. It merely brought the bigotry and rage to the surface,” says Alan Bean, executive director for Friends of Justice, a criminal justice reform organization.

For many, such events show that even if the juveniles responsible for hanging the Jena nooses were ignorant to its symbolism, the act isn’t any less incendiary.

“Most white kids…most kids, really, don’t know the history of the Klan or lynching in America,” says Mark Potok, director of the Intelligence Project, the hate crimes division at the Southern Poverty Law Center. “At the end of the day, a noose is a simple message to understand. It means murder by hanging. It is a threat and it is unmistakable, no matter what amount of history you know or don’t know.”

“I think that the noose incidents [across the country] represent a very broad white backlash,” says Potok, who doesn’t think U.S. race relations are going very well. “Literally, tens of thousands of white people view Jena as an example of a complete distortion by the press and as a six on one, black on white hate crime.”

“It is perfectly obvious that as a society we are resegregating, residentially and especially educationally,” offers Potok. “In the last six years the number of hate groups in America by our count has gone up 40%.”

Potok suggests that hate crime offenders are scapegoating minorities for their anger over globalization, the flight of industry overseas, and increased Latino immigration.

“Black and white Americans need to have a good long talk about race,” says Bean. “The initial attempts at communication will likely generate more heat than light. But we’ve got to start somewhere and we need to be intentional.”

Historically, more than 4,700 people were reported murdered by lynch mobs in the U.S. Only in 2005 did Congress apologize to the families of lynching victims for their failure to enact anti-lynching laws.The Local Law Enforcement Hate Crime Prevention Act, passed in the House and the Senate, may give federal authorities greater ability to engage in hate crime investigations that local authorities choose not to pursue. However, President Bush has indicated that he will veto the legislation. According to an FBI spokesperson, it is up to the individual law enforcement agency to determine if a crime is a hate crime. The agency has to determine the motivation behind the incident in order to define it as a hate crime.

According to Sen. Mary L. Landrieu (D-La.), the district attorney for LaSalle Parrish said “he would not prosecute students who hung a noose in a tree because the state law prohibits only cross-burning.” Landrieu asked the Justice Department to review the Jena 6 cases and commissioned a Congressional Research Services Report on how various states treat the “displays of intimidating symbols,” such as nooses.

Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.), who sits on the House Judiciary Committee which oversees civil and criminal proceedings, civil liberties, criminal law enforcement, and federal courts, says “The solution lies in ensuring that competent and fair-minded individuals occupy the crucial positions in the justice process throughout America.”

Additional reporting by Leslie E. Royal

6 thoughts on “Can we talk about race?

  1. “When Americans talk…”

    When Americans talk, period, we don’t converse, we don’t listen… The subject of conversation makes no difference.

  2. The black “community” should take a deep introspective and remove the racism from their own vision.

    When we see “community” to mean all people rather than the black community only, and “brother” to mean all men, white, black and otherwise: when we see “black” colleges filled with all races in proportion to the “community at large”, when we see acknowledgement and appreciation for “the white” contribution to “black” freedom; it will be then that we see true integration and a true glimpse of Dr. Kings vision.

    Black racism is the greatest problem in race relations today and black people should begin a “real” conversation with themselve abut that subject.

    When we can stop defining our selves by colors, we can begin true integration into one society—a truly free “American” society.

    No one is actually black or white, culturaly or otherwise. These are only raciest terms, used by people who still need the racial division.

    When “blacks” cease to see themselves separate and accept the “white grandparent” they have somewhere back in their genes we can begin to realize the true human family.

    Blaming others is enjoyable and self satisfying but very non productive. We begin tto change the world by beginning to change ourselves

  3. 1. dsf said, November 9, 2007 at 5:44 pm
    “When Americans talk…”
    When Americans talk, period, we don’t converse, we don’t listen… The subject of conversation makes no difference.

    DSF, some people do not want to hear or see what others have to say or write. they already know what the truth is and what the answers are. What they really are interested in is a sounding board, an echo of others agreeing with them. There will never, ever be a ‘dialogue about race’ in this country until only lemmings inhabit the earth, with no diversity of thought and tolerance unnecessary because of the lemmings. With individuality vanquished, there will be just one thought, like a colony of ants.

  4. it’s a shame that racism can’t be wiped out, but it’s a fact of life. the major problems are poverty, poor education, and racists that have passed on their beliefs to generation after generation. that’s a fact all over the world. we hear ethnic cleansing and other terms that are descrimination based on color, sex, religious preference and any reason ignorance or radicals exist. we think its bad here in a country that is a little over two hundred years old. try living in middle east countries that have been around for more than two thousand years with those beliefs. we say what we want and hear what we want based on the way we were raised and educated. the answer. eliminate poverty and promote education. maybe in about another ten generations racism will fade away.

  5. I say we need a new conversation among American adults–especially white and black adults. Unfortunately, most Americans are hoping that if we pretend racism isn’t a problem it won’t be.
    This hope is naive but it is also understandable. When Americans talk about race, we don’t converse, we don’t listen, we tend to approach the issue not as students hoping to learn someting but as combatants looking to crush and embarrass the opposition.

    Whoever wrote this needs to understand. A dialogue on race will not be from the standpoint of the subservient White, wracked with some sort of misplaced, misguided guilt, seated before the accusing Black, bearing the full brunt of their wrong accusations. No, this dialogue should be one where accusations can be presented first so that then, the solutions can be brought forth. And, it will not be settled in even a year. Centuries it has taken to place us thus and over it will not a day be. To understand, honesty must rule. Accepted this must be. Without this, acrimony will rule in its stead.

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