Black power means more than a t-shirt: Jena 6

Posted Sep 27 2007

I borrowed that line from the rapper Paris, who's by far one of the most politically charged artists out there. Ironically, he might bump heads with me on this piece. Basically, I share some critical thoughts about the Jena 6 case. Not out of malice, but rather out of a desire for us to be sophisticated in our approach to racism, as well as not losing our ability to think critically!

This is more of a ramble than a structured essay, but there are some key points I thought I'd address. If you haven't been following the case, this may get confusing, but this is already going to be long so I don't want to use space regurgitating basic facts. This touched a nerve in me so I cover about 20 topics!

For the record, no one has to convince me of institutional and structural racism. I've heard that this is a reminder of how racism continues to persist. Um, I don't need a reminder. I see it and experience it on a near daily basis. I don't need convincing that the six were railroaded. I know very well what a noose represents. Obviously I hope that those involved get treated fairly, yet I also hope that we can all take time to use this situation for self reflection and growth. The high school students in the U.S. Government course I teach have been focusing on this case all week and the key is for them to think; not just react. They need to get past their emotional response and look at the issues from an objective, legal stand point. It doesn't matter what their gut tells them if they can't prove it. Our focus isn't proving whether or not that racism exists. It's to sort through the information to try and gain a somewhat clear picture of what's going on.

Although I'm pretty left leaning, I'm more interested in truth and solutions. As a qualifier, many of my reference points are from liberal and activist circles. I read more conservative pieces and watch shows like The O'Reilly Factor from time to time, but my rant isn't for them so I'm not critiquing them this go around.

One thing that bothers me is the relative lack of critical thought that I'm hearing about the situation. One of my top pet peeves is people who don't think for themselves. I don't even like people to agree with me if they didn't get there through their own thought process. Many people are jumping on the "Free the Jena 6" bandwagon because it's the liberal, "Black thing" to do, but then they can't answer basic facts. Ask them questions and their whole credibility gets shot, which hurts the entire movement. We've been reading various articles in my class and there are all kinds of differing accounts. The students are very aware that sometimes they're getting 4th and 5th hand accounts. It's a confusing mess. Even basic facts like how many nooses there were are debated by those who weren't there. Two nooses? Three nooses? Does it matter? Yeah, in the sense that if you can't get basic facts straight, how do I know that your other information is credible? The reality is that you don't have to convince me. But you do have to convince a resistant White power structure so your game better be tight. The umbrella of racism is obvious, but the devil's in the details and the picture is more complicated.

As someone who lived in the South for a number of years and continues to visit at least once a year I have some familiarity with that region. It's not always the most progressive place, yet there are very forward-thinking people there and not all White people are raving racists; nor are all Black folks shuffling and cowering in fear. And yes, Latinos, Asians, Arabs, Native Americans, and everyone else that you can think of live down there. It's not quite the Bay Area, but we're there. My point is that outsiders all have their stereotypes and limited perspectives. Yes, even people of color. That doesn't excuse racism, but to say that all White people in Jena are closet hardcore racists is lazy thinking. While the impact of stereotypes is different due to White privilege, I'm not going to let racism limit critical thinking skills. I knew plenty of overtly racist White people and know some unwittingly racist ones so I'm not letting anyone off the hook. Yet I'm not giving everyone a bum rap either. I guess one thing that makes me so critical about this case is that I work at a high school and see how things can be taken out of context and manipulated for someone's agenda.


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