Richard Thompson Ford: Why the Jena 6 protests have gone awry





[Richard Thompson Ford is George E. Osborne Professor of Law at Stanford Law School. His latest book is Racial Culture: A Critique; he is currently at work on a new book titled The Race Card.]

When more than 10,000 people converged on the small town of Jena, La., last Friday, the Rev. Al Sharpton called their march the beginning of the 21st-century civil rights movement. He may be right. And that's just what's worrisome. The marchers gathered to protest criminal charges brought against six African-American high-school students, the "Jena 6." But the racial problems facing this town—and many others—are more complex than simple prejudice, and finding solutions will necessarily require more nuance than a mass protest can offer. The mismatch between the complex and layered racial tensions in Jena and the one-issue rallying cry of "Free the Jena 6" suggest that the tactics of last century's civil rights movement may be an anachronism for today's racial conflicts....

At most, the nooses [white sudents tied to an oak tree known as the "white tree" to stop blacks from gathering there] threatened violence that was never carried out. By contrast, the Jena 6 were charged with an assault that resulted in physical injury. The more serious racial problem—and the root cause of the Jena 6 altercation—was that students at Jena High School had effectively re-created Jim Crow segregation on an informal basis—instead of whites-only bathrooms and drinking fountains, they had a "white tree" that black students considered off-limits. Such informal segregation is commonplace at racially mixed high schools (and universities). And if other cities and schools are any indication, black self-segregation along with white racism may have played a role. Reportedly, Jena High also had "black bleachers" where white students did not sit.

When racial tensions caused by this social distance and mistrust boiled over, Jena's district attorney did what elected prosecutors all too often do in high-profile cases, regardless of the race of the defendants: He threw the book at them. Such prosecutorial overzealousness is not necessarily racist, but because blacks are disproportionately embroiled in the criminal justice system, it does fall with disproportionate force on them. This made the Jena 6 symbols for railroaded black criminal defendants nationwide....


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