Is the system racist?

From a recent Newsweek exposť:

A Town In Turmoil

"As the new school year approaches, Jena, La., is struggling to move beyond the racial strife that ripped it apart and left the futures of six students in disarray."

Full article here.

The crux of the story: Six black teenagers are charged with beating a white teenager. Authorities have already tried and convicted one of the Jena Six for "aggravated second-degree battery."

The back story: According to Newsweek's reporting, a black student violated the "school's unspoken racial codes" and occupied an "area reserved for white kids."

More Newsweek :

"Some white students didn't look kindly on the encroachment: the next day, three nooses hung from the oak's branches.

"That provocation, which conjured up the ugly history of lynch mobs and the Jim Crow South, unleashed a cycle of interracial strife that has roiled the tiny town of Jena. In the ensuing months, black and white students clashed violently, the school's academic wing was destroyed by arson and six black kids were charged with attempted murder for beating a white peer."

On the web photo gallery, a Newsweek caption reads:

"Justin Barker, 18, a friend of the students who hung the nooses, is the alleged victim of a beating by six black students at Jena High School."

Alleged? Wasn't there a conviction? Are we waiting on the appeal before we presume that the beating victim was actually beaten. Is Newsweek intimating that this might be a hoax?

Provocation? Do inflammatory symbols really excuse violent retribution--even if the target was a friend of the racist noose-hangers?

Another caption:

"Jena was 'entirely bypassed by the civil-rights movement,' says Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center. African-Americans continue to be concentrated in an area called 'the country,' a mix of tidy brick homes and rusted trailers. Whites tend to live in 'Snob Hill,' a middle-class neighborhood with tall pines and manicured lawns."

Wow! The de facto segregation rings true, but my experience with small towns in the South is that most whites are not wealthy and living in genteel surroundings. My hunch is that this glaring and likely erroneous generality (undisputed anywhere in the story) is emblematic of similarly slanted reporting and facile conclusions.

What should we make of all this? What is behind all this turmoil in Louisiana?

"The D.A. is a racist. There's just no other way to explain it," charged one of the parents of the accused. Newsweek does not quibble with that assessment.

On the other side of the country in Palmdale, California:

A black teenager, who attacked and killed another young man (who was white) in 2005, won a reduced conviction (from second-degree murder to voluntary manslaughter). As a result of the reduced conviction, an appellate court ordered the black youth resentenced. Last week, a judge sentenced the perpetrator to four to 11 years (reduced from a seven-year minimum) in a California Youth Authority facility.

The background: The black teenager, 13 at the time, attacked and killed Jeremy Rourke, a 15-year-old white youth after losing a PONY League baseball game.

The reaction to the reduced sentence (which, after considering time already served, will make the convicted teen-killer eligible for release in two years)?

From the LA Daily News:

"[T]he parents of defendant Greg Harris Jr. decried the punishment and accused the judge of racism.

"'Something has to be done about this judge. This is ridiculous,' Greg Harris Sr. said after the hearing. 'Eleven years - c'mon. Adults don't even get that. Personally, we feel he's racist.'"

Full story here.

My Conclusion?

I feel for parents who are quick to defend their children and slow to face the enormity of their trespasses. Certainly we still face important questions regarding race and justice in America--and we should take those matters very seriously.

Having said that, racial insults are NEVER justification for physical assault.

Even more importantly, we must resist the temptation to see racism as a default motivation even when there are more compelling reasons to explain the workings of the justice system.

That is, a boy was killed; it was due to the purposeful actions of another boy. This is a tragedy, but, inarguably, the perpetrator deserves punishment. That is not essentially a story about race.

Note: I intend this essay as part one of a longer conversation regarding race and responsibility. My next installment will feature more hopeful signs (the good news) rather than the mournful stories related above.