Category Archives: Joy Bunton

Jena, O. J. and the Jailing of Black America

Published: September 30, 2007

Cambridge, Mass.

THE miscarriage of justice at Jena, La. — where five black high school students arrested for beating a white student were charged with attempted murder — and the resulting protest march tempts us to the view, expressed by several of the marchers, that not much has changed in traditional American racial relations. However, a remarkable series of high-profile incidents occurring elsewhere in the nation at about the same time, as well as the underlying reason for the demonstrations themselves, make it clear that the Jena case is hardly a throwback to the 1960s, but instead speaks to issues that are very much of our times.

What exactly attracted thousands of demonstrators to the small Louisiana town? While for some it was a simple case of righting a grievous local injustice, and for others an opportunity to relive the civil rights era, for most the real motive was a long overdue cry of outrage at the use of the prison system as a means of controlling young black men.

America has more than two million citizens behind bars, the highest absolute and per capita rate of incarceration in the world. Black Americans, a mere 13 percent of the population, constitute half of this country’s prisoners. A tenth of all black men between ages 20 and 35 are in jail or prison; blacks are incarcerated at over eight times the white rate.

The effect on black communities is catastrophic: one in three male African-Americans in their 30s now has a prison record, as do nearly two-thirds of all black male high school dropouts. These numbers and rates are incomparably greater than anything achieved at the height of the Jim Crow era. What’s odd is how long it has taken the African-American community to address in a forceful and thoughtful way this racially biased and utterly counterproductive situation.

How, after decades of undeniable racial progress, did we end up with this virtual gulag of racial incarceration?

Part of the answer is a law enforcement system that unfairly focuses on drug offenses and other crimes more likely to be committed by blacks, combined with draconian mandatory sentencing and an absurdly counterproductive retreat from rehabilitation as an integral method of dealing with offenders. An unrealistic fear of crime that is fed in part by politicians and the press, a tendency to emphasize punitive measures and old-fashioned racism are all at play here.

But there is another equally important cause: the simple fact that young black men commit a disproportionate number of crimes, especially violent crimes, which cannot be attributed to judicial bias, racism or economic hardships. The rate at which blacks commit homicides is seven times that of whites.

Why is this? Several incidents serendipitously occurring at around the same time as the march on Jena hint loudly at a possible answer.

In New York City, the tabloids published sensational details of the bias suit brought by a black former executive for the Knicks, Anucha Browne Sanders, who claims that she was frequently called a “bitch” and a “ho” by the Knicks coach and president, Isiah Thomas. In a video deposition, Thomas said that while it is always wrong for a white man to verbally abuse a black woman in such terms, it was “not as much … I’m sorry to say” for a black man to do so.

Across the nation, religious African-Americans were shocked that the evangelical minister Juanita Bynum, an enormously popular source of inspiration for churchgoing black women, said she was brutally beaten in a parking lot by her estranged husband, Bishop Thomas Weeks.

O. J. Simpson, the malevolent central player in an iconic moment in the nation’s recent black-white (as well as male-female) relations, reappeared on the scene, charged with attempted burglary, kidnapping and felonious assault in Las Vegas, in what he claimed was merely an attempt to recover stolen memorabilia.

These events all point to something that has been swept under the rug for too long in black America: the crisis in relations between men and women of all classes and, as a result, the catastrophic state of black family life, especially among the poor. Isiah Thomas’s outrageous double standard shocked many blacks in New York only because he had the nerve to say out loud what is a fact of life for too many black women who must daily confront indignity and abuse in hip-hop misogyny and everyday conversation.

What is done with words is merely the verbal end of a continuum of abuse that too often ends with beatings and spousal homicide. Black relationships and families fail at high rates because women increasingly refuse to put up with this abuse. The resulting absence of fathers — some 70 percent of black babies are born to single mothers — is undoubtedly a major cause of youth delinquency.

The circumstances that far too many African-Americans face — the lack of paternal support and discipline; the requirement that single mothers work regardless of the effect on their children’s care; the hypocritical refusal of conservative politicians to put their money where their mouths are on family values; the recourse by male youths to gangs as parental substitutes; the ghetto-fabulous culture of the streets; the lack of skills among black men for the jobs and pay they want; the hypersegregation of blacks into impoverished inner-city neighborhoods — all interact perversely with the prison system that simply makes hardened criminals of nonviolent drug offenders and spits out angry men who are unemployable, unreformable and unmarriageable, closing the vicious circle.

Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton and other leaders of the Jena demonstration who view events there, and the racial horror of our prisons, as solely the result of white racism are living not just in the past but in a state of denial. Even after removing racial bias in our judicial and prison system — as we should and must do — disproportionate numbers of young black men will continue to be incarcerated.

Until we view this social calamity in its entirety — by also acknowledging the central role of unstable relations among the sexes and within poor families, by placing a far higher priority on moral and social reform within troubled black communities, and by greatly expanding social services for infants and children — it will persist.

Orlando Patterson is a professor of sociology at Harvard and the author of “The Ordeal of Integration: Progress and Resentment in America’s ‘Racial’ Crisis.”

Jim Crow still alive and well in Jena, Louisiana

A few weeks ago, we launched a campaign to bring visibility to the case of the Jena 6–six young black men in Jena, LA set to face more than 20 years in prison for their alleged role in a schoolyard fight. We’re already making a difference, but we could still really use your help.

Last Tuesday, over 300 people from across the country descended on Jena: we rallied in front of the courthouse, marched through downtown Jena, and cut through a line of sheriffs to hand-deliver petitions from more than 43,000 members to the District Attorney’s office.

It was quite a moment. The families were beaming because they knew that we had their backs. And, from the looks on their faces, it was clear that the authorities hadn’t anticipated such a growing and powerful force. We’ve also gotten the attention of Governor Blanco, who finally started sending responses to the over 50,000 emails members sent to her office. And, together, we’ve raised more than $55,000 for the legal defense of the Jena 6.

But we’ve got a ways to go. At this point it’s key to keep pressure on the Governor by continuing the emails, and we’re planning a bigger event in mid-to-late September. You can add your voice (and find out more ways you can help) by clicking below:

Color of Change

Here’s the rest of the story, as we told it a few weeks back:

Last fall in Jena, Louisiana, the day after two Black high school students sat beneath the “white tree” on their campus, nooses were hung from the tree. When the superintendent dismissed the nooses as a “prank,” more Black students sat under the tree in protest. The District Attorney then came to the school accompanied by the town’s police and demanded that the students end their protest, telling them, “I can be your best friend or your worst enemy… I can take away your lives with a stroke of my pen.”

A series of white-on-black incidents of violence followed, and the DA did nothing. But when a white student was beaten up in a schoolyard fight, the DA responded by charging six black students with attempted murder and conspiracy to commit murder.

It’s a story that reads like one from the Jim Crow era, when judges, lawyers and all-white juries used the justice system to keep blacks in “their place”–but it’s happening today. The families of these young men are fighting back, but the odds are stacked against them. Together, we can make sure their story is told, that this becomes an issue for the Governor of Louisiana, and that justice is provided for the Jena 6. It starts now. Please add your voice:

Color of Change

The noose-hanging incident and the DA’s visit to the school set the stage for everything that followed. Racial tension escalated over the next couple of months, and on November 30, the main academic building of Jena High School was burned down in an unsolved fire. Later the same weekend, a black student was beaten up by white students at a party. The next day, black students at a convenience store were threatened by a young white man with a shotgun. They wrestled the gun from him and ran away. While no charges were filed against the white man, the students were arrested for the theft of the gun.

That Monday at school, a white student, who had been a vocal supporter of the students who hung the nooses, taunted the black student who was beaten up at the off-campus party and allegedly called several black students “nigger.” After lunch, he was knocked down, punched and kicked by black students. He was taken to the hospital but was released and was well enough to go to a social event that evening.

Six Black Jena High students, Robert Bailey (17), Theo Shaw (17), Carwin Jones (18), Bryant Purvis (17), Mychal Bell (16) and an unidentified minor, were expelled from school, arrested and charged with second-degree attempted murder. Bail was set so high — between $70,000 and $138,000 — that the boys were left in prison for months as families went deep into debt to release them.

The first trial ended last month, and Mychal Bell, who has been in prison since December, was convicted of aggravated battery and conspiracy to commit aggravated battery (both felonies) by an all-white jury in a trial where his public defender called no witnesses. During his trial, Mychal’s parents were ordered not to speak to the media and the court prohibited protests from taking place near the courtroom or where the judge could see them.

Mychal is scheduled to be sentenced on September 20th, and could go to jail for 22 years.

The Jena Six are lucky to have parents and loved ones who are fighting tooth and nail to free them. They have been threatened but they are standing strong. We know that if the families have to go it alone, their sons will be a long time coming home. They will lose precious years to Jena’s outrageous attempt to maintain a racist status quo. But if we act now, we can make a difference.

Please add your voice to the voices of these families in Jena, and help bring Mychal, Theo, Robert, Carwin, and Bryant home. By clicking below, you can demand that Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco get involved to make sure that justice is served for Mychal Bell, and that DA Reed Walters drop the charges against the 5 boys who have not yet gone to trial.

Color of Change

Thank You and Peace,

— James, Van, Gabriel, Clarissa, and the rest of the team
August 8th, 2007


1. “Racial demons rear heads,” Chicago Tribune, May 20, 2007

3. See reference #1.

4. See reference #1.

5. “‘Jena Six’ defendant convicted,” Town Talk, June 29, 2007

Other resources:

NPR: Searching for Justice in Jena 6 Case (streaming audio)

Democracy Now! – The case of the Jena Six …

Too Sense: Free The Jena Six Now

While Seated: Jena Six

Nooses, attacks and jail for black students in Jena Louisiana

Justice In Jena, by Jordan Flaherty

The Perpetrator becomes the Prosecutor (and other related entries)

‘Stealth racism’ stalks deep South