FARAI CHIDEYA, host:
The Internet is becoming a place where people turn to build momentum for protest and activism, just as with the case of the Jena Six. Kali Gross is an assistant professor of history and the director of Africana Studies at Drexel University in Philadelphia. She says that the Jena Six has the makings of a classic civil rights cause, but she sees something unprecedented in the way the Web was used to bring the Jena march together.
Dr. KALI NICOLE GROSS (Assistant Professor of History; Director, Africana Studies, Drexel University, Philadelphia): I think one of the things that I was sort of impressed by or took away from what is otherwise a pretty tragic case is the fact that there were a significant amount of young people who had managed to organize and mobilize themselves pretty quickly and efficiently to get down to those protests.
And I think a large part of that is actually happening online. And I think it kind of disproves what has been, I think, sort of an underlying theme in the African-American community that youth are not engaged or are sort of apathetic. And I think that this case, and some of their reaction to it, is demonstrating that not only is that not the case, but that these guys maybe somewhat ahead of the curve in how they're starting to act, organize. And their activism is taking on a different dynamic that they're fully accessing that technology.
CHIDEYA: What about the idea of why this hit a nerve? There have been so many different incidents having to do with race and the criminal justice system. Why did this one hit the collective consciousness?
Dr. GROSS: Well, you know, I think that - unfortunately, this case has sort of all the makings for a kind of, like, a perfect storm. In some respects, it's just a shockingly, disgraceful example of a racist double standard in the justice system. It harkens back to a really ugly and tragic moment in our history in this country. You know, the nooses definitely are a powerful symbol of lynchings, which, you know, terrorized the African-Americans, men and women, for many years in the South. And all of the other aspects really harken back to this sort of pre-civil rights era where you had sort of a virulent white racism completely unabated and rampant segregation.
CHIDEYA: Well, let's go to our blog. We got over 150 comments related to posts about the Jena Six. It's really the, by far, the greatest response we've ever had. Now, here is one from 29-year-old Dawn(ph) of New Orleans.
DAWN (Blogger, New Orleans): Where were the school officials when all of this racial tension was evolving? How did they attempt to solve the problem before it turned into violence? I don't believe that these children should have been charged as adults. The crime they allegedly committed is the result of anger and racial tension gone awry and unchecked by authority figures. The reason we have a juvenile court system is because many Americans believed that kids have time to reform and deserve a second chance.
Shouldn't seven boys involved in a horrible school fight be given a chance to reform also? I understand that certain forms of racist speech are protected under the First Amendment, which is why we are even allowed to have this discussion forum. But keep in mind that any school that receives federal fund is required to protect students from racial harassment and discrimination. Nooses hanging from a tree is racial harassment; a white-only tree, racial discrimination.
CHIDEYA: Now, Dawn describes herself as mixed race. Her comments exemplified many of the comments we've received this week. So she raises the question: Should the school have acted earlier? What do you think?
Dr. GROSS: I think definitely yes. The fact that there is this sort of segregated tree that seemed to be sort of fairly common knowledge among the students is, in and of itself, disgraceful. And I think in some respects, the student who did initially call attention to it actually deserves some credit. I believe it was an African-American. I think it was a female student.
CHIDEYA: This is one of those moments in American life where many African-Americans feel differently than many white Americans, if not about the sentiment of what should happen to the Jena Six, about how important this is in American life. Some people see it as central. Some people see it as peripheral. Why that?
Dr. GROSS: You know, I think that we are still living in this era where people are wanting to bury their heads under the sand and try to treat these sort of instances as incidental. I think it's a huge mistake. And I also think it's a particularly easy one for sort of mainstream society, and I think certain segments in the white community to make, which is that they aren't sort of the routine victims of this kind of harassment. I don't necessarily think that there's enough of an investment in really fighting that kind of injustice.
And you have on the other side African-Americans who have long bemoaned the injustice in the criminal justice system. And that those cries have so often fallen on deaf ears or have been sort of rationalized the way, and us making excuses for criminals or, you know, wanting to sort of see racism under every tree when, in fact, it's, I think, it's still difficult for people to really come to terms with this act that racism is enduring and endemic in our society and especially in these kinds of structures and institutions. And the courts are not exempt.
CHIDEYA: We also got a comment from Matt(ph). And we don't know for sure, but he probably is not African-American. Here's what he had to say. And I'm reading from his letter.
What makes anyone think that this is an injustice? Six - let me repeat that - six people planned out an attack on one person. It is cowardly and disgusting. I am not saying that hanging nooses is right. I'm saying you don't deal with it by gathering five of your buddies and attacking the guy. You want to fight? Fight like a man, one on one. This is just another case of black people not wanting to take responsibility for their actions. If six white guys beat up a black guy, I can only imagine the outcry. Blacks have it great in this country.
So what's your thought on that?
Dr. GROSS: Well, I think it's a classic example of what I was talking about earlier. On one hand, I just - I find it interesting that he doesn't sort of abhor the violence involved in the resolution of the problem. It's the fact that it's not one-on-one violence. So I find that sort of interesting in his comment. But also I think it - I mean, it's really problematic because the other thing it does is it completely skips over the pattern of the sort of, of a double standard in the justice that these students have received. So he goes from the nooses on the tree to this larger culminating event. And he skips all of these other steps in between where white students harassed African-American students and essentially got a pass.
So I think that it's also this kind of willful sort of ignorance right, which is that we don't want to see this larger pattern in a way that this thing has sort of been escalating and ratcheting up. And instead wanting to, kind of, take these instances out of their actual trajectory and then try to make an argument that African-Americans don't want to take responsibility. The notion that African-Americans have it great in this country is debatable.
CHIDEYA: So we've found a lot of people brought their own personal experiences to the issue. And we got another comment from Nate Kimbrow(ph), Jacksonville, Alabama.
Mr. NATE KIMBROW (Resident, Jacksonville, Alabama): I took my first trip when I was 15 years old. I got on the bus in one area there in Anniston, Alabama. When the bus arrived in Birmingham, Alabama, I was stopped by white, older white man and he says come here, son, I'm going to show you something. So he took me around to the water fountain and said colored only. He took me to the bathroom where it said colored only - only. And at the end, he took me to this one area, and he said this is where you belong. So I know that racism exists in the South and it still does.
CHIDEYA: Has this become - this case, the Jena Six - become a case of reopening, reawakening, reexamining a collective memory?
Dr. GROSS: You know, I'm a historian by training. Well, I think that it's definitely an important aspect of continuing to remain vigilant. And I think there are a lot of things that civil rights have accomplished and I think people's response and activism to the Jena case now is starting to make some much needed sort of changes in how this thing has been going. But I do think it's important for people to kind of resurrect and expose these injustices where they are, that we need to keep those memories alive and also be vigilant about all those places where they're not so historical anymore. I mean, this is 2007.
CHIDEYA: All right. Well, professor, thank you so much.
Dr. GROSS: Thank you.
CHIDEYA: Kali Gross is an assistant professor of history and the director of Africana Studies at Drexel University in Philadelphia.
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