Published September 24, 2007
Racism isn't what it used to be - or so you'd like to think. With poll taxes and Jim Crow relegated to the past - seemingly replaced now by only the hollow cries of racial discrimination from people like O.J. Simpson and Kwame Kilpatrick, who use race as an excuse to cover their mistakes - it's easy to think that the goal of racial equality and harmony has largely been accomplished. Events unfolding in Jena, La., though, are a brutal reminder that whether we want to accept it or not, racial discrimination and segregation still exist in our country, and we still have a responsibility to address them.
The conflict at Jena High School centered on a long-standing school tradition of white students gathering at "white tree." When a group of black students raised their concerns about the tradition to the school's principal last August, he responded that black students had just as much of a right to gather at the tree. But three white students responded differently: They hung nooses from the tree. What followed was a series of small clashes between white and black students that culminated in six black students, now commonly known as the "Jena 6," attacking a white student last December.
As indefensible as the Jena 6's physical retaliation might have been, the justice system's response was more appalling. The three white students who hung the nooses and initiated the conflict were suspended from school for three days. The six black students were charged with conspiracy to commit a second-degree murder - hardly a just charge, considering the victim was well enough to attend a party the night of the incident. After conviction, the Jena 6 received reduced sentences, mostly because of the national attention the cases received from civil rights groups. But the blatant structural and cultural inequality that brought about the original charges didn't change.
While the Jena 6's case may shock our consciences and remind us of the state of race relations five decades ago, racial discrimination is not outside of mainstream America or even our own community. It's easy to forget while living in Ann Arbor, but according to data from the 2000 census, metro Detroit is the single most segregated area in the country. Seventy percent of students in the Detroit area attend schools where 90 percent of the students belong to the same race. The same data helped label the Detroit suburb of Livonia as the "whitest city in America." Even though it isn't codified in law, this still amounts to segregation.
Where segregation exists, everyone stands to lose. Blacks and other minorities are increasingly pushed into under-funded schools and dangerous, dilapidated inner-city neighborhoods. Whites flee to the suburbs, where they are temporarily able to turn a blind eye to this problem. When they join the workforce, though, it's tough to ignore America's diversity. Inevitably, people raised in segregated areas must deal with a diverse body of the American populace, and they often simply aren't prepared. That promotes further discrimination, and the cycle continues.
A solution to this problem doesn't entail lying to ourselves and believing that we live in a colorblind society where these problems don't exist. That ignorance leads to flawed approaches that ignore reality, like the U.S. Supreme Court decision this summer to ban mandatory busing for integration of schools. While a colorblind society is everyone's goal, the means to that goal must recognize that racial injustice exists and then work to improve it. Some call it affirmative action, but more accurately it is an understanding that we can't pretend hundreds of years of racial oppression never happened.
Although state law now limits the University's specific capacity to progressively address race problems, it is still the University's responsibility and our own personal responsibility to embrace diversity and work toward a more integrated and diverse society. This means respecting diversity at our university and in our own communities, regardless of whether the problem is as blatant as the one in Jena or as subtle as the one in Detroit.
High school students aren't born with the hatred to hang nooses from a tree. That is a learned behavior passed down from generation to generation. It's our generation's turn to end it.