Can I Just Tell You?Can I Just Tell You? NPR's Michel Martin gives a distinct take on news and issues

Racial Hate Crimes: 'Noose This'

Hear a personal opinion about how hate crimes should inpire a conscious effort not to fulfill another stereotype: becoming a "victim."

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Every now and again when I have something on my mind, I like to talk about it in a commentary.

And today, I want to talk about the whole noose thing. Today, as you must know - because we've been talking about it - a major protest has been organized in Jena, Louisiana. The purpose, of course, is to protest the punishment being meted out to six black high school students who beat up white students. Many consider the prosecution excessive and unfair, especially in contrast to the way whites have been treated for similar behavior. But the whole thing actually started with the nooses some white kids hung from their favorite tree when some black kids decided they wanted to sit under the tree, too. At the University of Maryland recently, the noose made another appearance in a tree near a building housing some black-oriented student organizations.

Now, I should start by saying I don't take this lightly. A couple of years ago when I was a seminary student, I arrived at class one morning to see one of our buildings spray-painted with swastikas and some slogans, white power or some such. I don't remember all the details, but I do remember how shocked I was that somebody would do such a thing.

The second thing I remember was how bad that felt - I actually felt physically ill. And the third thing I remember was how shocked I was at my own reaction. Now, this was only a couple of years ago, so by that time, I was a grown woman. So I would have been well acquainted with the ugliness of which humans are capable. I mean, this business took place after the genocide in Rwanda and Bosnia, the gassing of the Kurds in Iraq, the slaughter in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps.

In contrast, this swastika business was nothing - dare I say it, a stupid prank. And yet, I felt physically violated because a place I cherished, a place that stood for sanctuary and righteousness and achievement to me had been violated with words and symbols that stood for the opposite of everything I believed in. So yes, words and symbols matter and can hurt.

But can I just tell you, after I got over the shock, you know what I did? I went to class. I did my study group or whatever else I was supposed to do that day, and I would hope that I put a little bit of extra effort into excellence. Why? Because the whole point of spray-painting your classroom with swastikas or hanging a noose is to knock you off your game, to let you know that you don't matter - you're just an N-word or an F-word or a W-word or whatever else somebody wants to reduce you to. To let you know you're inferior and powerless.

So why would I let that get to me? Why would I let some inarticulate idiot, somebody so lame he or she needed to express themselves in spray-paint and a few dollars worth of clothes line ruin my day? Now at Maryland, university officials let everybody know that this noose business wouldn't be tolerated and that the authorities were investigating. I'm sure that was the right thing for the authorities to do. Maybe if the authorities in Jena had taken this noose business more seriously, maybe we wouldn't be where we are now.

Now, the students at Maryland organized a speak out. And while that was a nice demonstration of multiracial harmony, part of me can't help but wonder if a better message for the students might have been instead of - or maybe alongside a speak out - a study in in Jena instead of getting into shoving matches in the schoolyard, however sorely provoked they were. Maybe the kids could have poured their energies into graduating at the top of each class. Maybe instead of letting these little racist cowards ruin their day, they could have let them know their day is done. Because with every A on every test, every touchdown, every promotion, every election victory, every healthy child is born, you're telling the bad guys, you know what? Noose this.

And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin, and this TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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Can I Just Tell You?Can I Just Tell You? NPR's Michel Martin gives a distinct take on news and issues