Jan. 17, 2008
The Geography of Hate
By Florence Gold
Last month, Congress pulled a new bill aimed at broadening the definition of a hate crime off the table. With the number of racist organizations in this country on the rise, it’s important for voters to let their congressional representatives know just how badly needed the new law is.
According to The New York Times, which recently published data researched and developed by the Southern Poverty Law Center, during the period from the 1880s to the 1960s at least 4,700 men and women were lynched in this country. Hearing a recording of the song “Strange Fruit,” performed by the magnificent blues jazz singer Billie Holiday was a heart-stopping experience, one with which no other description of those tragic events can compare.
Its words are frightening and unforgettable:
“Southern trees bear a strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze
Black bodies hanging from the poplar trees”
In recent years it has been so comforting to tell ourselves that these occurrences were part of a past from which we have extricated ourselves, that long ago we cleansed ourselves of our history of racism, that the horror and guilt of lynching have been eliminated, and that we have expiated our sins and are not innocent and enlightened. References to such a hideous past are not of interest only to historians. At least this myth is what we would like to believe. But how true is it?
Last season nooses were hung on an oak tree on the campus of Jena High School in Louisiana. Today, the tree is gone. It has been chopped down to soothe racial tensions in the small town of Jena, but the nightmare remains.
The school’s main academic building was also destroyed, burned down, leading to questions of a link to the racial confrontations that had previously occurred. Some semblance of peace has been restored, or at least there seems to be evidence of a superficial calm. What remains, however, is the realization that much more needs to be done by the white citizens of Louisiana to understand the anger, anguish and distrust of the black community and to eliminate the causes of such events.
Legal battles remain, involving six black students, now known as the “Jena Six.” They are accused of beating a white student during the period marked by the appearance of the nooses.
About a year ago, at a school assembly, a black student arose to ask the white vice principal if he could sit under a tree in the schoolyard, in an area generally known as the province of white students. (How appalling to realize that in the year 2006 this child still felt that he had to ask for permission for the simple act of sitting in the area.) He was told that he could sit wherever he chose.
However, a day after black students gathered in the area, nooses were found hanging from the tree. The principal recommended expulsion for the white students who were responsible. But his decision was overruled by a hearing committee, which issued suspensions instead. That decision, as well as the characterization by the superintendent of schools calling the incident “a prank,” outraged many blacks.
None of the white students were charged with criminal intimidation, nor punished in any way. Tempers flared, especially when District Attorney Reed Walters appeared at an assembly saying, “With a stroke of my pen I can make your lives disappear” – a troubling statement. Black students insist that Walters was referring to them. This certainly exacerbated the tensions and subsequently, a white student was beaten up by some black students, according to news stories.
Whereas previously white students went unpunished with literally a mere “slap on the wrist,” this time there was immediate action. A 16-year-old black student was tried as an adult and convicted of second-degree battery and conspiracy in the attack. Subsequently, charges were thrown out because he was a minor when the fracas occurred. But he, as well as three others, are still awaiting trial as juveniles. No decisions have as yet been announced.
Again tensions increased. Media coverage spread across the U.S. and around the globe. In September, thousands of marchers traveled to Jena to protest the prosecutions. The Southern Poverty Law Center sprang into action and brought a team of experienced lawyers into the case. The president of the center, Richard Cohen, has said “It is a tragic reminder of Jim Crow and the two-tiered justice system that existed in the south for many decades.” I would add that this system existed and still exists in the north as well.
A reporter for the Nation magazine writes, “according to the ‘Sentencing Project,’ the 10 states with the highest discrepancy between black and white incarceration rates include Vermont, Connecticut, Rhode Island and New York and none from the south. Jim Crow travels well-unencumbered by historical baggage.” And Mr. Cohen adds, “in the U.S., the scales of justice are weighted against defendants who are poor and of color.”
The Southern Poverty Law Center is not only assisting with an excellent defense team for the “Jena Six,” it also exposed a white backlash, which followed the march in September. It is providing educational materials to schools in other communities, should they need support in confronting racially charged situations.
Additionally, the center has issued a set of strategies under the heading of “Six lessons from Jena” to help educators evaluate the climate in their schools, spot warning signs, identify bias incidents and use these strategies to bring communities and schools together.” In the last 10 years only about a dozen noose incidents came to the attention of civil rights groups. But since the Sept. 20 rally in Jena, there have been as many as 50 to 60 incidents. The noose is still used by racists to intimidate African- Americans, who are more than 70 percent of lynching victims.
What is also frightening and worrisome are the numbers of hate crimes in the U.S. – more than 190,000 incidents each year, according to a 2005 Department of Justice study. The number of hate groups has shot up 40 percent, from 602 groups in the year 2000 to 844 in 2006.
The law center asks a probing question: Did the huge rally in September in support of the Jena Six stimulate a backlash against recent gains of blacks in America?
Tragically, at this critical moment, President Bush threatens to veto a hate crimes bill, which, if passed, could help to check this evidence of the reappearance of these disturbing symbols. Our congressional leaders who have disappointed us many times recently have done it again. They have been unable to push through a bipartisan law against hate crimes.
This is the time to act forcefully, to urge our legislators to support this important bill. The SPLC has offered guidance to the Jena Six with legal experts and educational materials. But only Congress can stop the reappearance of the nooses and the hideous symbols, which they represent.