Lack of Diversity in Jena Protest

    On July 31, and again on September 20, people arrived in Jena, Louisiana from all over to protest. In July, several hundred arrived, but by September there were between 20 and 60 thousand. Within those weeks, mainstream America had heard of this small town. The case caught the public imagination because of many factors, especially the indelible image of the nooses.

When I attended the rally in July, I was impressed by the racial diversity, but in September, I was depressed by its absence. While the protesters and alternative media focused on the not so shocking statistic that Jena is 85% white, the movement for justice in Jena had become close to 99% black. A more racially diverse protest in Jena could have shown Jena, the media, and the protesters themselves a vision of what an alternative to racial separation looks like. The lack of diversity at the protest in Jena is not unique. At least in my experience in Houston, I saw few whites at that the pro-immigrant rallies of 2006, and I read a report about a lack of whites at the Muslim protests against the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. The same Southern white activists who complain that there aren’t more people of color at anti-war protests failed to come to Jena. The whites that arrived weren’t ostracized by the black protesters, but the failure of big numbers to show up had its own isolating effect.

It seems that the networks of interpersonal and informal communication through the internet are largely segregated. The word that Sept. 20 was not to be missed might not have reached many whites. The lack of coverage before and after the protest in the liberal white blogosphere shows an awkwardness about engaging the issue of racial violence. Many whites can agree that there was a disparity between the treatment of the black kids and the white kids who attacked one of the Jena 6 earlier, but the deeper injustices elude them.

Guilt and responsibility is not limited to those who attacked. It extends to the teachers and parents who allowed a segregated tree to exist in their school without doing anything about it for years. It extends to the repeated actions of the DA and others in the criminal justice system. Our culture doesn’t punish these actions and inactions. Our system is not even set up to deal with adults who don’t do the bare minimum to raise conscientious children. This is not a crime, but the results can be more serious than some crimes. If a teacher graduates a whole class that thinks it is ok to have segregated trees, it will cause future problems for them and society even greater than a concussion.

Whatever the reasons whites failed to show up in great numbers, that failure has caused more problems. Blacks there were not made to feel that white activists cared about the things that matter to them. We indeed have a long way to go in struggles against racism if we can’t even consensually integrate our causes. But to fix any root problem means that this extra work must be done. I believe that once activists start to experience anti-racism and learn how it works, causes like the Jena 6 can become part of a movement, instead of just isolated events.

Anti-racism is a powerful force that many are afraid to use. It can’t be tamed, or co-opted, but it can re-shape society. Politicians who use it don’t win elections. People who fight for it often face brutality. Activists who engage it often find things they don’t want to see in themselves. Groups that practice it often find themselves far outside their comfort zones. But Americans have already sacrificed more than enough for comfort and we can no longer ignore the tools we need to transform our nasty culture.

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