At Shelley Powers’ Burningbird I left a comment in the discussion thread that follows her post about the Jena Six. I’ve lifted that comment and include it below…
It’s difficult to write about the Jena Six because it’s undeniable that a wrong was done by them. They beat up another boy and the authorities have held them accountable. The Chicago Tribune said,
The Jena case has drawn national protests because of the perception of many African Americans that blacks are treated more harshly than whites in the town’s criminal justice system.
The Chicago Tribune understates the situation when they speak of the “perception of many African Americans.” If these kids can’t get their records expunged they will be stigmatized for life. That stigma will carry with it the documented consequences of being effectively excluded from the labor market. (See Marked, by Devah Pager.)
The disparity in treatment between whites and blacks in the justice system is huge, and the consequences of that disparity have a profound effect on our ability as a nation to provide equal opportunities for all. The entire justice system needs a closer look, and the unfortunate facts surrounding the Jena 6 make that clear.
Should there have been an arrest? Should the DA have charged the kids with a felony, and how should the case have been prosecuted? What discretion had the judge in terms of sentencing options and adjustment of charges? Why is Mychal Bell still in jail? What options exist for his release?
I think there is data to show that black men are often charged when white men would receive warnings. I know there is data to show that black men receive harsher sentences than white men when convicted of equivalent crimes. And there is the amazing fact of more than ten times as many black men imprisoned per capita in the USA than white men. This is not about racism in small southern towns. This is about a national shame that we conveniently hide beneath the history of racial tension in the old south.
Look at the circumstances leading up to the Jena 6 arrests. White kids undoubtedly crossed the line in terms of mishandling weapons, beating up other kids, and trying to create a climate of fear by hanging nooses, the symbol of black lynchings, on a tree in the school yard. But authorities used their discretion not to prosecute these offensive acts. When black kids crossed that line between right and wrong, the District Attorney was quick to bring them up on felony charges, as he had told them at a high school assembly that he could. Somebody turned the spotlight on Jena, Louisiana and it revealed this huge structural flaw in our justice system. But the spotlight could as easily shine on my home state of Wisconsin. Anecdotally, I am aware of a lot of African Americans of all ages who are pulled over simply for Driving While Black. (The link is to an article from Minnesota Law Review by Professor David Harris that provides statistical documentation for the “perception” regarding disparate treatment of white versus non-white drivers). If they are not appropriately circumspect, if they don’t project an attitude of humility, these random stops can turn into arrests. And once charged, the system is tuned to incarcerate black men at a rate ten times that of white men. It’s bigger than Jena, LA, but in Jena we have a chance to halt the injustice before more lives are ruined.