PORTLAND—White policemen patrol black neighborhoods, less as guardians of public safety than troops subduing occupied territory. They hassle young black men, subjecting them to "random" searches. Sometimes—too often—they shoot them. All-white juries acquit them, validating tall tales of squirt guns and wallets and shadows that look like guns.
Our prisons look like America—the part of America that's downtown and predominantly African-American. Being born black means you'll probably attend substandard, poorly funded schools, that you'll earn less than if you'd been born another race. You'll get sick more often and die sooner. Why aren't these life-shattering, soul-crushing injustices, rather than the overzealous prosecution of the schoolyard thugs known as the "Jena 6," attracting thousands of marchers?
I used to live on a street next to a strip of park created to separate my neighborhood—which was white—from Harlem. On my side of the park, the New York ritual called "alternate side of the street parking" required motorists to move their cars daily. This cleared the way for street sweepers and garbage pickup. It was clean and safe. My morning walk down the park's stairs to the subway illustrated the nature of systemic racism.
Each step was crumblier, more trash-strewn. On the east side of the park, where every face was brown, the garbagemen came once a week. Bags of refuse broke open, their contents whipped around in those little wind vortexes that spring up in urban spaces. When the light in a lamppost blew out on the Harlem side, it stayed out for months. Many of the buildings had been abandoned.
African-Americans live lives whose despair is amplified by petty nonsense. At our post office, the clerk always demanded that my black roommate show an ID to pick up his packages. She never asked me. (Racism is complicated. She was black.) Boutiques on Madison Avenue buzzed me in wearing ripped jeans and a Dead Kennedys T-shirt; they ignored him in a suit and tie. I'm not surprised that blacks are pissed off. The shock is that they haven't burned down the whole country.
The Jena 6 hype is bizarre, while countless innocent African-American men rot in prison—some on death row—unjustly convicted because they couldn't afford decent lawyers.
According to a Web site set up for their legal defense fund, "The Jena Six are a group of black students who are being charged with attempted murder for beating up a white student who was taunting them with racial slurs, and continued to support other white students who hung three nooses from the high school's 'white tree' which sits in the front yard." (The charges have since been reduced to aggravated assault.) The implication is obvious: "hate speech" justifies physical assault.
Justin Barker, 17, was beaten unconscious and then kicked repeatedly. A sturdy sort, he spent three hours in the emergency room before attending the school's Ring Ceremony later the same day. The accused, members of the school football team, claim that Barker had made fun of one of them for having himself been beaten up by a group of white students at an earlier event, one of a string of racially charged incidents in the small town. Barker denies it.
"Young white males involved in the racial incidents received slaps on the wrist, at most, while young blacks received school expulsions or criminal charges," wrote Clarence Page in The Chicago Tribune. One of the Jena 6 remains in jail despite having had his conviction overturned. That's wrong. But, said Justice Department attorney Donald Washington, "There was no connection between the September noose incident and December attack [on Barker]." Furthermore, reports the Associated Press, "the three youths accused of hanging the nooses were not suspended for just three days—they were isolated at an alternative school for about a month, and then given an in-school suspension for two weeks."
"They haven't always been fair in the courthouse with us. If you're black, they go overboard sometimes," says Jena High School janitor Braxton Hatcher, 62, who is black. That's easy to believe. Then he repeats the standard talking point: "I think this was just a fight between boys. I don't think it was attempted murder."
Six against one isn't a schoolyard fight. I've been in more than my fair share of schoolyard fights, so I know. Fights are one on one. Six on one is attempted murder. Kicking someone after they've passed out is attempted murder. Nothing Barker said, no matter how foul, can justify such a vicious assault by bullying jocks. This is the stuff of Columbine.
Symbolic hate speech, even as vile as nooses in the context of the recent history of the Deep South, pales next to actual physical violence. The real problem is that there's a perception that attempted murder charges wouldn't have been filed had the races of the students involved in the Barker beatdown been reversed.
Indeed, the Urban League finds that the average black man convicted of aggravated assault—the charge pending against five of the Jena 6—faces 48 months in prison if convicted, a term about one-third longer than if he'd been white. And the Justice Department says black men who get arrested are three times more likely than whites to end up in prison.
What white apologists call the legacy of racism—does a continuing phenomenon leave a legacy?—wrecks the lives of millions of Americans. Consider the following:
"Statistically," reports The Los Angeles Times, "black males in America are at increased risk for just about every health problem known. African-Americans have a shorter life expectancy than any other racial group in America except Native Americans, and black men fare even worse than black women ... It is possible, [researchers now] believe, that the ill health and premature deaths can be laid—at least in part—at the feet of continuous assaults of discrimination, real or perceived ...The reaction contributes to a chain of biological events known as the stress response, which can put people at higher risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes and infectious disease, says Namdi Barnes, a [UCLA] researcher ... for many African Americans, these responses may occur so frequently that they eventually result in a breakdown of the physiological system."
In short, racism kills.
As one wag observed, the Jena 6 are no Rosa Parks. In the face of the intractable challenge of a nation so racist that it literally makes people ill, however, what passes for a civil-rights movement finds that it's easier to set its sights low.
Ted Rall is the author of the new book Silk Road to Ruin: Is Central Asia the New Middle East?, an in-depth prose and graphic novel analysis of America's next big foreign policy challenge.