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Mike hopes to see the world turned upside down through local communities banding together for social change, especially churches which have recognized the radical calling to be good news to the poor, to set free the prisoners and oppressed, and to become the social embodiment of the reign of God on earth as it is in heaven. He lives with the blessed memory of his wife, in Durham, NC, and has three adult children living in three different states. He also shares his life with the Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church in Durham, the faculty and students of Shaw University Divinity School in Raleigh, NC, and the faithful fans of Duke and Baylor Basketball in his neighborhood.

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Friday, May 25, 2007

Let the spotlight shift to Jena, LA. Durham, NC, has been the focus of national attention on politics in the justice system, the presence or absence of racism, and the way that people debate about crime and race in public. The continuing residue of this discussion has to do with (1) what kinds of power a district attorney can have in the investigation and pursuit of criminal cases and (2) how public intellectuals such as university faculty ought and ought not to speak out in the context of a public criminal case.

In Durham we have the so-called Group of 88, Duke professors who signed a statement concerning the ongoing problems of racism and sexism at their university. They wrote it in the heat of the early investigation about the Duke Lacrosse team party which employed African American exotic dancers in a setting of heavy drinking. As most everyone knows, one of the dancers charged that she was raped, and three members of the lacrosse team were charged. Eventually, the woman's account of the alleged crime fell apart, and all charges were dropped. These professors continue to be the object of attack for having spoken out in a context that some people say was prejudicial to the students charged, unduly critical of their university, and overall in bad taste for talking about racism and sexism as if they are problems in this day and time.

Well, now the same kind of hubbub has appeared in Jena, Louisiana. It is not really new. It started last September. But only now it is getting picked up by a few news sources. Curtis Freeman alerted me to a news story on the BBC website. I found another article at the Chicago Tribune site. I'll quote a bit from the latter as I highlight the story here. I have not seen any all day coverage on CNN or MSNBC or Fox. We'll see if that comes (NOT).

There is a racial incident that started it all. When black students got permission from the principal to go and sit under a tree in the school yard that traditionally was only for the white kids, they did it for the first time. This is 2007. The next morning, three nooses were hanging from the tree. It was not hard to find out who had done it, and three white male students were recommended for expulsion from school. They eventually only got a three day suspension.

This sequence of events led to a good deal of conflict, and a series of incidents involving fights, beatings, and guns (no shootings) occurred. When white people were harassing blacks, they received lesser charges. But when some black boys ganged up on a white boy, causing only minor injuries, they were charged with attempted murder.

So there is a District Attorney acting in arbitrary manner. Many folks around the country incensed about the situation in Durham seem to think that prosecutors acting in ways that don't seem fully just, and even acting arbitrarily, is a new thing in the Duke Lacrosse case. What is new about it is that it happened in a racial context to the disadvantage of privileged white boys in a major university. It has happened over and over to the poor, to blacks, to Latinos, to other minorities, but seldom does the public hear about it. Let's make sure the public hears about Jena, Louisiana, and District Attorney Reed Walters of LaSalle Parish.

Second, most people in Jena want to say that there is not a problem of racism in their community. Yet only sixteen years ago, most of this town's white votes for Louisiana Governor went for David Duke, KKK leader. But in response to the hanging of the nooses, the white school superintendent "ruled that the nooses were just a youthful stunt." The mayor tried to play it down, too. "Jena is a place that's moving in the right direction," said Mayor Murphy McMillan. "Race is not a major local issue. It's not a factor in the local people's lives."

Thanks be to God for a Pentecostal preacher who spoke up, and the lone black school board member who added his agreement.
"I've lived here most of my life, and the one thing I can state with absolutely no fear of contradiction is that LaSalle Parish is awash in racism -- true racism," a white Pentecostal preacher, Eddie Thompson, wrote in an essay he posted on the Internet. "Here in the piney woods of central Louisiana ... racism and bigotry are such a part of life that most of the citizens do not even recognize it."

The lone black member of the school board agrees.

"There's no doubt about it -- whites and blacks are treated differently here," said Melvin Worthington, who was the only school board member to vote against expelling the six black students charged in the beating case. "The white kids should have gotten more punishment for hanging those nooses. If they had, all the stuff that followed could have been avoided."
On one web site I read someone's comment that they feared for him now that he had made these public comments. They expected that he will be harassed and maybe worse. Rev. Eddie Thompson and Melvin Worthington and Caseptla Bailey (mentioned in both news articles) are Jena's Group of 88. When they see racism, they call it what it is. May there be at least another 85 people to stand with them.

1 comment:

haitianministries said...

"Here in the piney woods of central Louisiana ... racism and bigotry are such a part of life that most of the citizens do not even recognize it."

This statement sums of the nature of racism in a whole lot more places than just the "piney woods of cenral Louisiana." Unfortunately, most of us--if we are white--simply do not recognize racism when we see it.

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