Last night I was on Bev Smith’s nationally syndicated program with two of the Jena 6 parents. Ms. Smith learned about Jena from an article in Jet magazine (the first media outlet to cover the Emit Till story half a century ago). Bev asked me why the national media has been so slow to pick up on the Jena story. I responded with my usual explanation. The media generally avoids the travails of poor black people; generally it’s the legal troubles of high profile people like Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, Martha Stewart, Kenneth Lay and Scooter Libby that get the attention. Normally, shows like Law and Order and CSI feature the dastardly deeds of rich white people. Television cameras follow celebrated black defendants like O J Simpson, but stories about poor black people don’t play well in prime time unless the details are particularly lurid. Michael Jackson and Michael Vick get a lot of attention; folks like Jena’s Mychal Bell are ignored.
Given these unpleasant and unyielding realities, the Jena story has received phenomenal coverage. You know a case is getting big when columnists insert the story into a list of well publicized outrages. Hazel Trice Edney, the author of the piece below, mentions the Jena 6 saga in her laundry list of high profile race stories. I’m not familiar with Ms. Edney’s work, but if Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson return her calls she must have a following. In Ms. Edney story about the rapid re-segregation of America, Jena appears as an anomaly or “fluke”. America may be re-segregating; but where but Jena do you find “white trees” and nooses dismissed as childish pranks?
Back in 1976, I occasionally visited the high schools of Louisville, KY in my role as a youth minister. Black and white students were being bused across town on the theory that the lack of racial diversity in Louisville’s schools vitiated the basic assumption behind the Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown vs. Board of Education: separate is not equal. Tensions were high in Louisville in 1976, and burly security guards patrolled the halls and lunch rooms of the high schools. The only fight I ever witnessed was between two black girls. With few exceptions, the white and black students ate and socialized separately. Some of the black students told me they handled the stress of entering an alien world by smoking a joint before getting on the bus every morning.
As a Canadian, carpet-bagging, do-gooder, I tried to bring the black and white students together. My strategy was to hold the occasional Bible study on the black side of town. I remember meeting in the home of a black school teacher in a black working class neighborhood where all the houses were painted and all the lawns were mowed. Nonetheless, the white students were shocked by the deprivation they encountered. Compared to the unbridled affluence to which they were accustomed, this modest 1600 square foot home looked like a tarpaper shack. Black students visiting the white side of town were equally overwhelmed by the obvious wealth gap.
Life in poor neighborhoods is hard. The poorer the neighborhood, the harder it gets. It is hardly surprising that affluent Americans should want to distance themselves from the pain of the inner city. When poor people follow, the affluent keep moving. Recently, we have seen a trend toward “gentrification”. Wishing to live closer to the city center, wealthy people transform squalid tenements into state-of-the-art condos and apartment buildings. As property values rise, poor people are forced to leave the streets and avenues they know as home. Whether rich people are fleeing or invading the heart of the city, the end result is the same: the re-segregating of America. This process is rooted in fear, not hate. The white folks who live on my street in Arlington, Texas don’t hate black people. In fact, if a black family with all the accoutrements of professional standing moved in next door, most of my neighbors would heave a sigh of relief. Now they could say they live in an integrated neighborhood! Integration is still prized as an American ideal-just so long as the minority folk moving in can keep up with the Joneses in dress, speech and the spoils of conspicuous (and tasteful) consumption. We just don’t want to live around poor people. As a practical matter, that usually means we don’t want to live around people of color. Black professionals are little different from white professionals in this respect. But since there aren’t enough black (and brown) professionals to go around, the practical result of people-being-people is segregated neighborhoods and segregated schools.
Last night, Bev Smith asked me a pointed question: why won’t white people acknowledge that racism is a serious problem. “When black people get together,” Smith told me, “that’s all we talk about.” I replied that white people generally define racism in terms of overt, Mississippi Burning, hatred for black people. Since most white people don’t hate black people, they see themselves as part of the solution, even if they live in all-white neighborhoods and send their kids to all-white schools. Cut off from the pain of poverty, white professionals see no evil and hear no evil . . . and as soon as they do, they move.
The price of segregation is an appalling and pervasive ignorance. We don’t think racism is a problem because, frankly, we don’t know any better. I spent most of Monday afternoon in the company of an intelligent, articulate and musically gifted young African American. He had recently graduated from Southern Methodist University, holds a degree from a prestigious university in Austria and speaks fluent German. But he understands the streets. He knows the prisons. His roots in the black community bind him to the pain of poverty. Only half my age, he knows things I cannot know as a white man. That’s how it is. So what do we do to reverse the re-segregation of America? Where does the conversation start? One place it can start is on the Friends of Justice blog. Your comments were precious-please keep them coming. I need to hear you far more than you need to hear me.
Mounting Racial Tensions ‘Resegregating’ America, Activists Say
by Hazel Trice Edney, NNPA Editor-in-Chief. Originally posted 8/21/2007 WASHINGTON (NNPA)
More than 100 years since W.E.B. DuBois declared that the “color line” would be the key problem of the 20th Century, civil rights activists and race experts now say the problem of racial tensions are still so pervasive in the 21st Century that some have labeled it as a resegregation. “It’s undeniable that we are resegregating education in a dramatic way and we are also resegregating or becoming more segregated residentially than we were. And so those things are clearly going backward,” says Mark Potok, director of the Intelligence Project of the Alabama-based Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors racial hate activities across the nation. “I don’t think race-relations are doing terrifically well.” Potok says what appears to be a rise in racially charged incidents publicized this year alone coincides with the rise in race hate groups nationwide. * In January, the story was still blaring about comedian Michael Richard’s calling a Black man the N-Word from the stage in a crowded Los Angeles comedy club in November. * Within a few months, now former talk show host Don Imus’ on-air “nappy-headed hos” insult to the Rutgers University women’s basketball team dominated the airwaves and the streets. * Meanwhile, a list of racially charged criminal justice cases began heavily circulating. They include: * The Nov. 25 wedding day killing of unarmed Black man Sean Bell by New York police officers, which sparked protests into the new year; * The case of Genarlow Wilson, 21, who is serving 10 years in a Georgia prison as he awaits the state Supreme Court’s decision on his conviction of consensual oral sex with a 15-year-old White girl that happened when he was 17; * The U. S. Supreme Court’s ruling against race-conscious public school assignments in Louisville, Ken. and Seattle, Wash. that sent a chilling affect over other such plans across the nation; * And the Jena Six case, now at full throttle in Louisiana, where 16-year-old Mychal Bell and five other Black high school students could face up to a combined 100 years in prison after a school brawl that started with them being insulted by nooses hung in a so-called “White Tree.”
Coinciding with consistent news reports on such cases, Potok says the heated immigration debate that railed in the U. S. Senate well into the spring apparently exacerbated negative reaction to the racial climate. He says the perception of the rising number of Black and Brown people in America is directly connected to the rise in hate groups. According to the Intelligence Report, 602 such groups, including the Ku Klux Klan and the Aryan Nations, were documented throughout the U. S. in 2000. That number has now risen by 40 percent to 844 in six years, he says, calling it “quite a significant rise and a real one.” Potok describes, “The reaction of very many people is that, ‘My country is changing all around me. This is not the country that my forefathers built. It must be because those brown-skinned people are coming in and destroying it.” Actual hate crimes and attacks soon follow, he says: “When hate crime gets the worst, it’s when the neighborhood starts to approach sort of a tipping point like 49 percent. But, once you get a significant number of whatever it is, Black people in a White neighborhood, brown people or whatever it is at the 30 or 40 percent mark, then some people start to feel ‘My town’s been stolen from me by these interlopers.'” Some places, such as Jena, where Mychal Bell was convicted by an all White jury in a case with a White judge and a White prosecutor, just appear to be a fluke, Potok says. “The civil rights movement just never made it there.” But, as the cases and the atmosphere of racism mount, activists say Black people can fight back non-violently – and win.
Activist, the Rev. Al Sharpton, who has organized community marches in response to all of the most high-profiled criminal justice cases, says community mobilization is still among the most effective responses to racism and injustice. “Unquestionably, the color line was not solved in the 20th Century and it is absolutely facing us in the 21st Century. The difference is there has been in the last decade those who are in our own community who have been tricked into going to sleep and thinking that the relative progress of a few individuals has changed the plight of the masses,” he says. “Therefore, it has emboldened racists to come back out of the closet.” Sharpton says that those who criticize marching and having rallies in response to injustices are shirking what has proven to work. “The civil rights movement worked. They changed the laws that we are fighting to keep…How did they fight them? They fought one battle at a time. They fought Birmingham and then Selma. And those battles have broad ramifications…So, as we fight these battles, we must fight single battles that have broad ramifications. For example, we fought one battle of Imus and the whole industry now, including the record industry, is changing the N-Word and all,” he says. The Rev. Jesse Jackson agrees. “The laws changed, but the culture keeps kicking back,” Jackson says. “We will keep struggling, that’s what we are going to do.” Jackson says the period resurgence of overt racism in America is associated with the fact that an “undercurrent of fear” does not realize the benefits of diversity. “When the color line is dropped you have more talent developed…I think that we are making progress, but we are swimming uphill. We are running, but we are swimming uphill,” he says. “There is a layer of change that’s significant and there’s an undercurrent of resistance that’s surreal. The undercurrent will take you down.”
While Jackson and Sharpton often focus on community marches, Dr. Julia Hare, national executive director of the San Francisco-based Black Think Tank, says mobilized Blacks could take other direct action. “To maintain any kind of supremacy, you’ve got to maintain some kind of inferiority,” says Hare, a psychologist. “The people who put you under this oppression, why should they free you?” Hare says Black people must free themselves by taking direct action beyond marching such as collectively boycotting and removing their money from banks that redline in Black communities and by refusing to deal with stores and businesses that disrespect or fail to hire significant numbers of Black people. She says Black churches, under the inspiration of conscious Black preachers, could play a major role in organizing such targeted protests. Hare says the same strategies could be used to mobilize Black people to “take over school boards” and establish disciplinary and academic policies that could spark progress for Black children. Even as the perceived enemy is racism and White supremacy, another major problem in dismantling racist policies or in changing the racial climate in America can actually come from within the Black community, says Sharpton. He says high profile Blacks who try to marginalize racism in America or downplay it is doing the community a disservice. “When they talk down race, they give a lot of White America a cover into operating in the dark where they can do what they want and it’s no longer front page and front burner,” Sharpton says. “Everybody should be saying what is obvious – that there is a spike in racism from decisions by the Supreme Court all they way down to a Don Imus… And anyone who is saying we are beyond race is deluding the public for their own edification.”