Friday, September 21, 2007

Blinded By The White: OJ Simpson vs. The Jena Six

by Sally Kohn

Why is it that mainstream white media and white folks in general are so obsessed (once again) with OJ’s guilt but paying little or no attention to the innocence of the Jena Six?

Of course, we all know about OJ’s recent arrest. It’s been all over the news. But if you don’t know about the Jena Six, you’re not alone. On, for instance, there are four times as many recent news stories about OJ as there are about the Jena Six.

As I’m writing this, the town of Jena, Louisiana — population 3,000 — is preparing for a civil rights rally Thursday with an expected 50,000 demonstrators from across the country. But OJ Simpson is on the front page of USA Today site.

In the small town of Jena last fall, two black high school students sat in a schoolyard under a tree. The tree was known as the “white tree” because only white kids are allowed to sit under it. The day after the two black students defied this unspoken rule, nooses were hung from the tree. The school principle dismissed it as a “prank”. Black students protested by sitting under the tree, in growing numbers. The District Attorney came to the school and threatened them, saying, “I can take away your lives with the stroke of a pen.”

There was a series of violent incidents were white students attacked black students. The government and school administrators ignored those. But when a white student was beaten up by six black students in a schoolyard fight — after provoking the black students with racist taunts — the District Attorney charged the black students with attempted murder and conspiracy to commit murder. They were charged in adult court. Meanwhile, the white student they beat up suffered only minor cuts and bruises.

One of the black students, Mychal Bell — age 16 — has been in prison since December. Last month, an all-white jury decided that Bell was guilty — not guilty of beating up a student who racially taunted him, but guilty of attempted murder.

It reminds me of the African American five-year-old in Florida earlier this year who was acting up in kindergarten so the teacher called the police and the little girl was handcuffed and arrested and taken to jail. Or countless other examples. How is it that white folks are so predisposed to presume that black folks are sinister and guilty and yet equally as quick to deny the pervasiveness of racism in every crevice of our society and rail against affirmative action and other remedies to structural injustice?

At the time of OJ Simpson’s trial for allegedly murdering his ex-wife and her friend, polls showed that most white people thought Simpson was guilty while black people thought he was innocent. Another poll conducted 10 years after the Simpson verdict found the same thing.

What gives? Why in case after case do blacks and whites see things so, well, black and white? Racial profiling is a documented phenomenon; studies show that African Americans are far more likely to be arrested and convicted of crimes than whites who commit the same offenses. People of color recognize that the system is biased. Why can’t whites? And why can’t whites recognize their own role in perpetuating that bias — not only directly but also indirectly by denying that that such racism even exists?

Thursday, Mychal Bell will be sentenced. He faces up to 22 years in prison for a schoolyard scrape that he didn’t even start. While many whites in Jena are saying the case has been “overblown” (USA Today’s wording), over 11,000 busloads of demonstrators are on their way to Jena in protest. To show their solidarity with Jena’s black community, all of the demonstrators will be wearing black.

Rather than us white folks reading the news about OJ and assuming, “There he goes again…” we should be reading the news out of Jena and thinking, “There it goes again!” — the “it” being racism, injustice, systematic oppression, an entrenched double standard based on race. We must start to recognize that, when it comes to crime, the problematic pattern in our society is NOT the criminal behavior of communities of color. That’s a myth. It’s wrong. White people commit far more crimes than blacks. We must recognize that, when it comes to crime, the problematic pattern in our society is us white folks over and over again presuming the criminality of people of color while denying that we do so, thus allowing injustice to accumulate in often subtle but just as often egregious ways. When we don’t acknowledge our own racism and the racism of those around us, we lay the groundwork for an all-white jury to convict Mychal Bell and call it justice. As the saying goes, if we’re not part of the solution, we’re part of the problem.

On Thursday, September 20th, white folks around the United States should rise up and denounce the Jena Six verdicts and the atrocious handling of this case in side-by-side solidarity with the African American community. We should make it clear that we won’t stand for racism in our schools, our criminal justice system, our hearts or our minds. Not in Jena. Not anywhere.

On Thursday, September 20th, we should see a sea of white folks nationwide wearing black to show their support for the demonstrations in Jena. This means you! Racism is perpetuated by white folks who like the system the way it is, with them at the top and people of color at the bottom. But just as much, racism is perpetuated by white folks who aspire to a world of equality and justice but nonetheless turn a blind eye when racism rears itself again and again and again. Don’t be part of the problem. Be part of the solution. Wear black, sign the Color of Change petition to free the Jena 6, donate to their defense fund, tell your friends and neighbors about this injustice, and do something to resist racism and build an America where we’re truly all in it together.

Sally Kohn is director of the New York-based Movement Vision Project, working with grassroots organizations across the United States to advance our shared values of family, community and humanity. She has interviewed progressive leaders across the country on their vision for the future.