If you have been thinking that the last election ushered in a post-racial America this dispatch from Paris, Texas will give you pause. I didn’t attend the meeting described in Howard Witt’s article, but I have been in conversation with several Paris residents. The Community Relations Service of the Department of Justice can be a useful resource when folks are ready to talk, but in towns like Paris there isn’t much that public officials like Carmelita Pope Freeman can do.
I considered attending this event, but decided to let the Parisiennes (Parisites?) work things out in their own way. Until the Brandon McClelland dragging death case is resolved there won’t be much common ground or shared vision in this North Texas community.
The disconnect between white and black evangelicals described in my last post springs to life in Mr. Witt’s poignant article. White folks, arms folded defiantly across their chests, shake their heads in disbelief as black folks share personal encounters with racism. Are the white folks racists? Are the black folks playing the race card? It all depends on who you ask.
One thing is certain, America remains divided by race. You see it most clearly in places like Jena, Tulia, Bunkie and Paris; but this is a distinctly American story.
RACE IN AMERICA
Hard truth, but little reconciliation, in Paris, Texas
By Howard Witt | Tribune correspondent
1:50 PM CST, January 30, 2009
PARIS, Texas – Ten days into the new America, a hundred white and black citizens of this deeply-polarized east Texas town tried their hand at the kind of racial reconciliation heralded by the historic inauguration of President Barack Obama, gathering for a frank community dialogue on the long-taboo topic of race.
Things didn’t go so well.
The black speakers at the Thursday night meeting, led by two conciliation specialists from the U.S. Department of Justice, mostly spoke of incidents of discrimination, prejudice and unfairness they said they routinely suffer in Paris. Their white listeners mostly glared back with their arms crossed.
The four-hour session ended with some participants screaming at each other over the presence of three police cars parked outside meeting hall, and who had ordered them and why.
“We are not going to end on a note like that!” commanded Carmelita Pope Freeman, the regional director of the Justice Department’s Community Relations Service. “I’m getting tired of it!”
Yet the mayor of this once-obscure town, which became a national flashpoint after the Tribune revealed several cases of alleged racial injustice here in recent years, pronounced himself optimistic. At least, he said, black and white citizens were talking to each other-something that’s rarely happened in Paris before.
“Every city should have a dialogue like this,” said Mayor Jesse James Freelen, whose town of 26,000 is 72 percent white and 22 percent black. “We didn’t like all the negative publicity about our town and we didn’t like how we got here. But if the end result is that our community grows together, then it will all have been worth it.”
First, however, the community had to vent, which was the purpose of Thursday night’s meeting. It was an early stage of a mediation program the Justice Department has offered to other troubled towns, like Jena, La., to help close deep racial fissures in an echo of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
“I’m here to talk about racism. I don’t see any sense in playing games, pretending it doesn’t exist,” said Brenda Cherry, the African-American leader of a local civil rights group. “When you go in the schools and see mostly black kids sitting in detention-it’s racism. In court, we get high bonds, we get longer sentences. If that’s not racism, what is it?”
Jason Rogers, the youth pastor of a local black church, reminded the audience of the monument honoring fallen Confederate soldiers that sits on the front lawn of the county courthouse.
“When I take my 5-year-old son up to the courthouse and he says, ‘Daddy, what’s that?’ the history I’m going to tell him is that those people fought to keep me a slave,” Rogers said, as black members of the audience nodded in agreement. “It bothers my family that there’s a large Confederate soldier outside the courthouse. I don’t see the difference between a Confederate soldier and a Nazi soldier.”
In fact, Paris’ bloody racial history hung over the meeting like a toxic cloud.
The event was held in a hall at the Paris Fairgrounds, the precise spot where, a century ago, thousands of white citizens gathered to cheer the ritualized lynchings of blacks, chaining them to a flagpole or lashing them to a scaffold before tearing them to pieces and setting them on fire.
But memories of much more recent black victims also filled the room as Paris resident Jacqueline McClelland approached the microphone.
McClelland’s 24-year-old son, Brandon, was murdered last year, allegedly at the hands of two white men, who authorities charge dragged him beneath a pickup truck until his body was nearly dismembered. The accused killers are awaiting trial for murder, although McClelland’s family and civil rights leaders want hate-crime charges added as well.
“Any crime that is done the way my son was done, I think hate played a part in it,” McClelland said, as the room fell silent. “I’m just hoping and praying that justice will be served on this.”
Then Creola Cotton stood up to speak.
In 2006, Cotton’s then 14-year-old daughter Shaquanda was sentenced by a local judge to up to seven years in a youth prison for shoving a hall monitor at Paris High School. Three months earlier, the same judge had sentenced a 14-year-old white girl to probation for the more serious crime of arson.
Less than a month after a Tribune story contrasting the two cases triggered national protests and petition drives, Texas authorities ordered Shaquanda’s early release from prison.
“Justice in Paris does have a color,” Creola Cotton said. “I know this from personal experience.”
At the back of the room, Lamar County Judge Chuck Superville-the white man who ordered Shaquanda to prison-listened and shook his head in disagreement.
Racial discrimination in Paris, he insisted, is a problem of perception, not reality.
“I think the black community in this town is suffering a great deal from poverty, broken homes, drugs,” Superville said. “Because a larger percentage of the black population is caught up in that, in their anguish they are perceiving they are the victims of discrimination. But white people are not the enemy. Poverty, illiteracy, drugs, absentee fathers-that’s the enemy. That’s not racism. That’s the breakdown of a community.”