The More Things Change...

I've been meaning to write a post about the events unfolding in Jena, LA for months now. I've followed the press reports from the beginning, when it was a page three story in our local daily. I haven't written anything simply because I kept waiting for something, someone in a place of authority in all of this mess to wake up and point out the insanity of the whole thing. I'm still dumbfounded that it took a huge national media campaign, thousands of protesters, Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton to provoke some action by the courts. I wonder with a heavy heart what would have happened if the story had remained on page three.

I have such high hopes for Louisiana. It may seem unbelieveable to people from the rest of America, but we're not all a bunch of red-necked crackers holding shotguns and burning crosses in front of houses. Lots and lots of us get along just fine, respect one another, and cross the color line everyday. Many of us here believe in racial justice, fairness, and the rule of law.

The saddest part of this case to me is the high school. I grew up in Southwest Louisiana, which for various economic and historical reasons had more racial harmony than elsewhere in the state. In part it was due to the civil rights movement having been so recent (this was in the 70's and 80's), but it also stemmed from the fact that our economy had never depended on slavery. In our little sheltered corner of backwoods we were protected, I suppose, from the reality of the rest of Louisiana, and so for me to imagine schools where racism was both intrinsic and officially sanctioned is beyond conception.

Because of my own upbringing, I can't imagine a cafeteria where the whites sit on one side and the blacks on another. Areas of campus where only whites or only blacks hang out. At my school we all hung out together, ALL of us, and we were all friends, black and white. Kids of other races who moved into town were accepted as cool right from the start, and were treated as interesting, having seen more of the world than any of us. We had black and white faculty, and they were equally beloved (or hated, depending on the homework they dished out).

The difference, in my opinion, is that from the earliest age we were taught to all stick together. Allegiances at my school were by class (school grade rather than economic). We were taught that racism was wrong, and even though there were individuals who were racists (this is Louisiana after all), it wasn't a systemic problem. It wasn't endorsed officially or unofficially.

Why didn't someone stand up in Jena long before now? One report I read stated that black and white kids sat next to one another only during class and on sports teams. These kids should have been friends, playing together as elementary students. They should have been taught about the things that united them, not the things that divided them. There should never have been a tree where only white kids sat. The appearance of those nooses should have been swiftly and severely punished.

We should be moving forward in this state, not backward. We shouldn't have to have Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton down here leading marches through our towns. Children should be taught tolerance and racial equality, instead of inheriting the dangerous and destructive views of their ancestors. Louisiana is one of the most culturally rich and diverse states in our country. We should be proud of that, celebrate it, not embarass ourselves and ruin lives with backwards and antiquated prejudices. As adults we should know better by now, and we are only handicapping our children if we don't teach them to live in a world where not everyone looks, acts, and thinks as they do. The Jena Six should not only be a call for justice. It should be a wake-up call.


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