Beyond the thug-hero syndrome

News and Notes is an NPR program that highlights stories of particular interest to African American listeners.  Host Farai Chideya took an interest in the Jena 6 story early on and her program has contacted me about it in the past.  The lion’s share of this roundtable discussion deals with Mychal Bell’s attempted suicide (none of the panelists considered the shooting accidental).   

I clicked on the “listen now” tab with a sense of foreboding.  I was afraid participants would conclude that the black community should never have supported the Jena 6. 

That’s not what I heard.  Jasmyne Cannick, Shaun King (of Shaun in the City), and Eric Brown of the Detroit News talk about the impact of intense media coverage on small-town kids like Mychal Bell.  The general sense is that supporters of the Jena 6 turned Mychal into a hero–a burden of expectation he couldn’t handle. 

When we stand behind people like Mychal Bell, Robert Bailey and the other Jena defendants we must understand who they are and who they aren’t.  They aren’t heroes.  They are neither wise nor well-informed.  For the most part, they come from broken families and have learned to live with severe financial hardship.  In their world, role models are in short supply and, for better and for worse, the Hip Hop culture fills the moral void.

Justice advocates need to grow beyond what I call the thug-hero syndrome.  The Jena 6 were vulnerable to over-prosecution because the white community in Jena had labelled them as lower ninth ward thugs.  I tried to present the Jena 6, Justin Barker (the student assaulted at Jena High School) and the young white boys who hung nooses from a tree on the white side of the school courtyard as victims of a toxic social environment.  These kids had been fighting sporadically for months when a fire at the high school sparked a crisis atmosphere.

The white and black students at Jena High School were placed in an adversarial relationship by public officials who refused to call a hate crime by its proper name.  The District Attorney and the Superintendent dropped the ball because they were unprepared to address Jena’s racial history. 

In 1970, a time when it was still considered okay to invite the KKK to political rallies, Jena High School was forced to open its doors to African American students.  The decision was made without rancor or controversy; they had to do it so they did.  But no one helped the students, teachers or administrators bind up the emotional wounds inflicted by generations of slavery and Jim Crow segregation.  The relationship between black and white residents was hopelessly strained and no one was in a position to rectify the situation.

The unspoken message communicated to Jena High students, black and white, was “That was then; this is now.  The rules have changed, so lets move on.”

Meanwhile, black and white residents of Jena continued to live in stark isolation.  They resided in different parts of town; they attended different churches; they socialized separately.  Only High School sports brought the community together.  No one talked about race.  Students didn’t learn about the civil rights movement.  Few white residents acknowledged any relationship between the Jim Crow regime and present inequities. 

When a black freshman named Kenneth Purvis asked the school principal if he and his friends could sit under the tree on the white side of the courtyard he received the only answer a school administrator could give in 2007: sure, ya’ll can sit wherever you want to. 

The students who hung the nooses had other ideas.  A de facto (though unspoken) segregation shaped the social life of Jena High and everybody knew it.  When school officials treated the noose hanging as an innocent prank with no racial significance, the new Jim Crow regime was defiantly reinforced. 

In the end, Justin Barker paid the price. 

Justin is no hero.  A few months after the beat down at the high school, Justin was disciplined for bringing a hunting rifle to school.  Still, his personal deficiencies didn’t justify a brutal assault that left him bloody and unconscious. 

The Jena 6 aren’t heroes either.  They are confused boys caught up in a game without rules. 

Conversely, none of these kids, black or white, qualify as thugs.

They are all normal kids.  As such, they are capable of good and evil.  They may mature into heroes or degenerate into thugs, but they are more likely to end up like the rest of us, curious mixtures of light and darkness. 

The Jena 6 story teaches justice advocates to get their facts straight.  Sure, it felt good to think of the Jena 6 as civil rights heroes in the tradition of Rosa Parks.  Unfortunately, it felt just as good for white folks to see the Jena 6 as Boyz from the hood.  

Folks on both sides of this story lapsed into the thug-hero syndrome for lack of a more realistic model.  There is frightfully little nuance in the depiction of black males in the American media.  There are civil rights heroes (who are always innocent) and there are inner city thugs (who are always guilty); if you ain’t one you must be the other. 

Black people assumed that since the Jena 6 weren’t thugs they must be heroes.  That meant they must be innocent.  White folks reasoned that since the Jena 6 weren’t heroes they must be thugs. 

The resulting conversation wasn’t pretty to watch, but it was highly instructive.

The victims of injustice are rarely heroes.  The system usually works just fine for middle class folk regardless of race.  True, middle class white people are sometimes victimized–think of the Duke lacrosse team.  And middle class African Americans are frequently mis-identified as underclass bangers–even when coming home from church in their Sunday best.  Nonetheless, the standard victim of wrongful prosecution is a young, black, uneducated, poor and confused male who has adapted to a chaotic social environment.

Treat this kid like a thug and he will eventually play the part with gusto.  Treat him like a hero and he will disappoint you every time.

The advocacy community must abandon its quest for no-risk heroes.  If we are going to stand up for the real victims of injustice in modern day American we must be comfortable with moral ambiguity.  The facade of the Supreme Court reads “EQUAL JUSTICE UNDER LAW”.  No exceptions.  The criminal justice system can’t write a separate set of rules for standard Americans and another set for folks it considers sub-standard.

Of all people, evangelical Christians should understand this.  “For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.”  Do we believe that; or have we been sucked into the thug-hero syndrome along with everyone else?

4 thoughts on “Beyond the thug-hero syndrome

  1. I dont think there are any winners in this. Bell and the others have been scarred for life not only publically but emotionally. The same can be said for the people who live there. The judicial system there needs to be changed personnel wise and the person responsible for ruining the lives of these kids should not be allowed to work in the court system.

  2. Alan–Most people, even white, middle-class adults, who get suddenly caught up in the criminal justice system are confused and usually overwhelmed by the process–much less young, African-American, low-income teenagers. What everyone needs in this situation is a competent criminal defense lawyer, who is not afraid of the system, and able to confront it on its on terms. The main difference between the Duke Lacross players and Mychal Bell is that the Duke kids had top-notch lawyers, and they ended up running the DA out of town on a rail. Keep up the good work. JCB.

  3. This is really well conceived and well written Allen.

    I’ve had to say and write over and over again that the personal qualities of the Jena 6 as individuals was never the issue. The only issue was just and fair treatment, and due process under the law.

    Further, the deification of the subjects of social justice fights is always a set up for disappointment.

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