Racism & The Jena Six

Written By Hannah Yterdal

Let’s play a quick game of Taboo. Okay, here we go.

It has to do with color. It’s ugly. You can find it at any American high school. You can find it here on campus. It’s ever-present in our society, even though it shouldn’t be.

No, it’s not bad cafeteria food. It’s a lot worse.

It’s racism.

It is impossible to turn on the TV, open a newspaper or even walk into class without being faced with some aspect of racism. It is as much a part of America as the Stars and Stripes and Monday Night Football.

In recent months, the Jena Six case has made national headlines because of the obvious—or not obvious—racism that spurred both the crime and the punishment. The sad thing is, few people actually know what “Jena Six” refers to. When the opinions editor first brought it up at the newspaper copy meeting, I shook my head, unable to remember what Jena Six was. It wasn’t until others began talking about racism that I remembered something about a bunch of black kids in Louisiana getting some kind of unfair sentence. But what is Jena Six?

The incident really began more than a year ago when black students at Jena High School asked the principal if they could sit under a tree where white students usually ate. The principal told them they could sit anywhere they wanted. Later that week, nooses appeared hanging from that tree, a symbolic reminder of the lynchings that happened so often in that region only a few decades before. The white students found responsible for this “offensive prank” were punished by three days of in-school suspension.

A few months later, six black students attacked a white student viciously enough to send him to the hospital. The black students, were, of course, arrested and charged. But with what? Several things, in fact, ranging from assault with a deadly weapon to murder (no one died). One of the attackers, who was only 17, was charged as an adult. All of the defendants faced up to 100 years in prison.

I’m not going to sit here and try to defend the Jena Six. They attacked a person, and their actions should be punished. What I, and many others across the nation, find so appalling about this case is the enormous difference between the punishments of a group of black kids who beat up a white kid, and a group of white kids who played a gross “prank” on any black kid who might see it. Do these six youths deserve to spend some time in jail? Absolutely. Do they deserve to spend the rest of their lives there? Absolutely not.

But, for me, the biggest atrocity in all this is the way the Jena Six case is being used. People from across the country and even around the world have used this incident to protest the racism inherent in our culture. There is no less racism among the protesters than there is in very nature of the Jena Six’s punishments. Masses of African-Americans have organized protests, but one is hard-pressed to find a white protester among them. It is being used as fodder for a renewal of the Civil Rights Movement. It has become a black’s issue.

In the end, though, the Jena Six will be mere trophy kids, the golden example of whatever might come of their situation. If they receive reduced sentences, like so many want, how many will be there to greet them on the day of their release? There may be swarms of supporters, yelling and waving their arms and worshiping these youths as heroes. But that’s all they would be – momentary heroes, the emblem of the fight for civil rights – until the next ones come along. And they will come along.

We all need to reexamine our motives for supporting, or not supporting, these six people. We argue for more leniencies because of their skin color – how is that any better than arguing for harsher punishment because of their race? We are still seeing in black and white, even while we praise ourselves for fighting injustice. We need to start seeing in true color.

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