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The Jena 6

By Heather Oman

As a white, upper middle class girl growing up in the West, words like “segregation” and “hate crime” were not a part of my vocabulary.  My grandmother used to talk about living in DC, and how when she went to the movies, she sat down in front, while non-whites sat in the balcony, and talked about the “whites only” drinking fountains.  I remember staring at her as she told me these stories as a child, thinking that surely she was completely crazy, because nothing that bizarre could ever exist. You could argue that I’ve lived a sheltered life, and you’d be correct.  Still, I would say that nobody who grew up in my childhood neighborhood ever had to face something like this, the uproar that is surrounding the Jena 6.

The story seems simple enough:  6 black students in the sleepy town of Jena, Lousiana, assaulted one white student, supposedly as pay back for an earlier incident that involved white students hanging up 3 nooses from a tree.  The nooses supposedly symbolized a “white only” area of the highschool campus, a shade tree where white students hung out.  Some black students were found lounging under the tree one day, and the nooses were hung as a message not long thereafter. 

The black students were arrested, and initially charged with attempted murder.  The white students were never charged with anything. Hence the uproar.  The charges have been down graded to battery and conspiracy to commit battery, which is obviously better than attempted murder.  But if they are convicted, the students face upwards of 15 years in prison.

The story I read lays out these facts, along with this line that describes the noose hanging prank as “the incident that began a spiral of events that culminated in the December altercation”.

A spiral of events.  A culmination.  It makes one wonder what these students put each other through before it got so bad that somebody got hurt.

Did a white student spit at a black student?  Were there pranks involving lockers, humiliations in the locker room, notes left anonymously on a car?  Were there fights before this, smaller ones where the participants were left concious, but bruised, bloodied, angry and vowing revenge? At what point did it stop becoming about race, and start becoming about power? 

 Or has never really been about race?  Has it always only been about power, all along?  Is that what drives one human being to deliberately hurt another?

Regardless, I’m disturbed.

The other sad thing is that I don’t know how effective the huge protest will have on the ultimate outcome.  The public support for the Jena 6 may have caused the prosecution to downgrade the charges, but the fact remains that they assaulted somebody, and they will face those consequences, protest or no protest.  The fact that the white students got away with a hate crime makes no difference in the black students’ legal standing. And last time I checked, a huge angry mob does little to diffuse violent situations. 

From where I stand, I wonder what my duty is in all of this.  Do I add my voice to the angry mob, and demand equality with my slogan painted on a picket sign?  Do I ignore it, turn the page of the paper, and go on to reading about something more entertaining, like Britney Spear’s latest catastrophe? 

In reality, no matter what I think I should do, I will probably go on doing what I am doing; living my quiet life in my quiet neighborhood, teaching my children good values and morals, and hoping and praying that what I am teaching them ensures that my son will never be the one to incite such a riot, or treat somebody who is different than he is with such disrespect.  Hopefully my lessons make him aware that everybody is a child of God.  And that primary song, you know, the one about trying to be like Jesus?  Yeah, I’m hoping that sinks in.

To the Jena 6, the teenagers who are possibly facing prison, it’s probably not very much.  But hey, I’m just a mom.  Teaching my children about love is all I’ve got.

How do you teach your children to be tolerant of others who are different than they are?

How would you respond in a situation where you or your children had been treated with disrespect, or where consequences had been unjust? How would you want your children to respond?

About Heather Oman

(Prose Board) lives in the south with her husband, her two kids, and her wiggly black lab. She is a licensed speech language pathologist, but spends most of her days trying to teach her own kids how to say please and thank you. She is a member of the Segullah Editorial Board, and is the founding member of the blog Mormon Mommy Wars.

22 thoughts on “The Jena 6”

  1. I grew up in the deep south and a couple of hours away from Motown when it was still in its hey-day. So I am not really a stranger to this issue. But my parents, hippies in their own right, really never said anything about it. They just showed me.

    The showed me that we're all the same. They showed me that there was no difference in how their affection was meted out to others. They showed me through their friends and associations.

    But here I am, stuck in Grade A homogenized milk-land. I think one of the best things that's happened to our family is a marriage in the family to someone of a different skin color. It has given my children the same opportunity that I had — the opportunity to know and love someone in the same consistent way they love people that look just like them.

    I remember as a teenager attending rallies and even a protest once, but they always felt too political and angry for me. I have clung to my parents example precisely because it was warm and welcoming — just the thing I'm trying to convey.

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  2. Coming from a home where the 'N' word was used and bigotry was supposedly funny, my proudest moments have come when my own children-when hearing about this or any other racial type of contention-look at me with complete confusion and wonder out loud, "Mom, I don't understand. Why is there even a problem? We're all just people, aren't we?" I think that as long as we are breathing the very best thing we can do is teach our children to LOVE without conditions.

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  3. Kind of like you, I hope I do a good enough job. It probably helps that we have two inter-racial marraiges in our family, so my kids are used to seeing people who look different as part of our family.

    And I agree, setting the example of love is the best thing you can do.

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  4. My husband has two older sisters that are half Native American and most of my in-laws are Asian or Native Hawaiian (hubby is white, but grew up in Hawaii). So my kids have lots of little cousins that look very different from them. So far they've never noticed or said anything. I think a big part of it comes from parent's examples. I grew up in Southern California and I was usually in the minority in my schools (I'm white). Our ward was mostly white, but we had some hispanic, black, and Asian members. I never heard my parents say anything rude about members of other races or even mention it much at all. All my friends were welcome in our home, regardless or race or religion. My mom would even do stuff like invite our Filipino friends or Indian friends over to teach her how to cook their food. I think it does help to be an example of love, and I also think that it's important to give age appropriate direction about racial and cultural differences. If my kids were in high school right now I would definitely sit down with them and talk about the news.

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  5. I grew up in the inner-city of a large metropolitan area and was one of the only white girls in my school. I have sympathy for how badly they are treated, because I saw it first hand. I would go to the mall and not have a problem, but if I was with one of my black friends we were followed through the mall like criminals.

    There is definitely a double standard, but don't get me wrong I think these 6 need to do jail time. There is no excuse for violence especially when there is 6 against 1.

    The white students need to be prosecuted also for a hate crime. You can only be pushed around so long before you push back, and it sounds like that is what the 6 did.

    I work hard to teach my children that we are all the same, but find it difficult while living in Utah. They don't have a lot of opportunity to socialize with those of other races, or faiths. It is unfortunate.

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  6. I grew up in primarily white communities, and my parents (in my view and percetion) were somewhat racist at home; they maintained a very PC persona out in public. Then I married Thor.

    Thor grew up in the hood. Such a hood that after 6th grade he and his siblings were assaulted by non white groups almost on a daily basis. His best friend (RR)in 5th grade was black. As a way to make it safely into his peer group RR's challenge was to BEAT up Thor on the 1st day of 6th grade, to prove his loyalty to his race. By the time Thor graduated high school he had beaten several times, once so severely that his left cheekbone is permenately flat do to the crush of a foot.

    His family are skewed, racist, and no where near PC at home or in public due to their personal experiences.

    Thor and I wanted our children to grow up without prejudice and we moved to a rural community where that plan worked rather well up until 5 years ago. Prior to that time it seemed that all races, genders, religions, cultures, whatever got along just fine. Interratial dating was a non issue, blah blah blah.

    Our community's trouble began when our school board allowed students who had been expelled from other districts down in the "city" to enroll. That coupled with the building of several prisons in the area built up race situations that are serious.

    People can forgive, people can change, families can teach and instruct. The bigger problem is getting a community to evolve as well. Ours was once one of those kum by Yah places where it never mattered. Until a very few came in (and I might add ALL races) and have poisoned the water.

    Now our job is to start over as a community.

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  7. I grew up in Utah, except for a brief time in the South when I was a little girl. So I feel removed from all this, but disturbed by it at the same time.

    I love what s'mee says about the community; thank you.

    I don't know how to make a difference, except to talk to my kids about it, and hope that when they face a situation where they need to be kind to someone who looks different, they will do so. My sister-in-law is Latina, and when their cousins come, that will help.

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  8. When we first moved to this community and bought our home we were unaware that there was a clause that forbade us to resale that home to "anyone of colour" until we were signing the final papers.

    As we learned more about this small town we found that it had at one time been home to some very powerful, wealthy bigots, who decided they would control who and what would grow here.

    School Boards, HOAs, developers, counsels and other specific civic groups have the power to make changes for good and ill in any town where voting still happens.

    Know who sits on these boards.

    Follow the money trail. Many times ill policies are in place to provide taxes for, or shelters, or other means of gaining income for those who are in positions of authority or their friends, or certain businesses, pet causes, etc. Know who is backing your candidate and why.

    Look down the road. A certain law or ruling now may seem like a great thing until 10 years later and that law allows negative events to take place. (Such as the prisons. The thought was JOBS!INCOME! No one thought about the inmate populations' family and friends who moved to be closer to the inmate, and their influence on the schools and community.)

    Diversity Rules. When one group (race, religion, age, gender, whatver) is in control they lose perspective on what is good for everyone. Don't be afraid of voting for or moving next door to someone who is different.

    Voluteer. This is a great way to get the entire family involved and knowing the community. When your kids see you working to make things better, they will too. When they see others in diffrent circumatnce they gain better understanding and empathy.

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  9. s'mee- I'm no lawyer, but I know for certain the wording in your closing docs for your home is illegal, and completely un-enforcable by law.

    That said, I appreciated reading your story.

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  10. Tracy, we understood that to be the law as well (even back in 1980) which is why we went ahead and signed. We figured it wouldn't hold up in a court if we had to "push it". That said, it was still "allowed" in this particular town because of the neanderthals who ran the town.

    The other homes we have purchased in this town no longer have those same "neighborhood laws". Progress.

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  11. (pushed send before I finished, duh)
    My point, I guess, is that discrimination is also against the law, yet it continues to be practised within certain communities and supported by those in authority.

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  12. The support by those who are in authority is the really scary stuff. I just read a first hand account of a woman who survived the Rwandan Holocaust (Left To Tell–wonderful, wonderful book), and she related how government broadcasts over the radio would tell the Hutus that it was their duty to cleanse their country of Tutsis, that it would make one a good citizen. The more you killed, the better the citizen. Scary, scary stuff.

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  13. I grew up in a pretty rascist home. I spent a lot of time arguing with my dad about it. But I realized that while there isn't much I can do to change my dad, I could impact my own children. We live in an extremely diverse neighborhood with children from every country in the world, every race imaginable and nearly every religion represented. We've made friends with wonderful people and have always welcomed new friends with different customs and cultures into our home. I realized all this teaching had sunk in when my boys responded to an ugly incident with two other neighbor children. One boy, (white and Swedish) taunted a little girl from Bangladesh and told her that Swedes hate people from Bangladesh. My boys were so indignant on the girl's behalf. They defended her verbally against the boy and immediately came and told me what happened. I was so proud of my boys.

    When my boys were younger, one came to me and said that all brown people were bad–because he had been having conflicts with a Muslim boy in our neighborhood. It was a perfect opportunity to explain that skin color doesn't make a person good or bad, its what we do that makes us good or bad. We talked about all the people we knew that were different races and how we loved them. I have never heard my son express that negative sentiment again.

    I think the big think is that we as adults have to steer clear of rascism in our attitudes, with our friends, etc.

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  14. Fact, white boys hung ropes from tree to keep blacks from sitting there.
    I heard the boys who hung the ropes were suspended.
    Fact, they did not hurt or injure anyone with the ropes.
    Fact, 6 black boys beat a white boy up.
    He was injured, but attended a school function the same night,
    Does the punishment fit the crime is the question we should be asking. Not if this whold mess is racial.
    The Jena 6 punishment is harsh and should be changed, but they did in fact beat up on one boy who may or may not have even hung the ropes. Were you there, did you see what actually happened or are you listening to what you want to hear. If it were the other way around do you actually think that 6 white boys would not have received punishment? I agree the punishment does not fit the crime, but a crime has been committed and they should not walk away without some form of correction, even if it is just picking up trash around the school with the same white boys who hung the ropes. Make them work together.

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  15. Donna-

    Thanks for your comment.

    Of course the Jena 6 need to face the consequences of assaulting another student. We can also hope that if things were the other way around, that 6 white students would also have to face consequences for an assault. But what I tried to convey in the post is that a huge protest about the Jena 6's legal status does not solve the underlying problem, which does indeed involve racial tension.

    What I got from this article is not only that 6 black students suddenly jumped one white kid because they were offended about the nooses, it's that the nooses were the catalyst for a series of events that culminated in violence. What drives a situation like that? Who teaches their kids that hanging a noose from a tree in response to a person of another race sitting in your spot is okay? How can we teach our own children that participating in discriminatory behavior, white or black, is unacceptable?

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  16. Heather.

    I agree with your perpective; there is an underling problem. But who created it – the media, the school, the kids, the parents, or society? Where should the the healing process begin and who should oversee a solution to racism – be it black, white, regilous, culural etc? There is a problem in the world concerning racism and an answer needs to be found. Our government rides the side that will get them elected; yet forgets their promise once they get to Washington. Common sense and the goldern rule should be the bottom line when address the problem.
    Thanks for your feedback. My eyes are opened.

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  17. Ok this is how I see it. I live in North La and have heard all of the stories. I ran a little experiment for 30 days last year. Now what I am about to write will definetly put me in the light of being a bigot or a racist. But in my defense let me say this; I have met black (i refuse to go PC on this one)people here that deserve to be respected and some that don't. I have also met some red neck a$$ whipes that don't deserve it either. For some reason the racism here flows equally through both races. Many blacks here hate white people, vice versa. The problem here is the level of ignorance that still resides. The people that hung the nooses should have been punished and the people that went violent should also. The level of punishment should be more harsh on the Jena 6 because of their actions. The punishment should fit the crime on both sides of the aisle. Make no mistake I am probably the most non-racist person you will ever meet. But after living here and watching the non whites drive 15 mph in a 45 without any regard for other people and what they have to get accomplished to take care of their family is only the icing on my rage cake. The fact that when you go to the licensing bureau to get a business license and you pass the welfare office the non-whites out number the whites 5-1. The fact that certain people (painfully a majority)that live here are so worried that someone is getting something they arent tips the ignorant scale here.So please all of the tree hugging, granola eating, ride your bike to not use gas individuals out there that don't live here. Its easy to throw stones. Live here for a year and then talk to me.

    Thank you!

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  18. I have certainly lived in the deep south, and absolutely believe that racism runs both ways, DW. The issue could categorically be called an issue of race, but it would be more appropriate to call this an issue of economics. Race is certainly intertwined with this issue, but it largely boils down to economics and cultural expectations. Overcoming racism is going to involve looking past race and addressing some fixable issues.

    I absolutely do not portend to have a solution to this problem, but until we address the underlying educational issues that the south is facing, no one, whether she be a black urban youth or a migrant cotton picker or a white "red-neck" will have the tools and the cultural impetus to make anything change.

    Me getting off my soapbox…

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  19. agree 100% Justine, But its up to the individual to take responsibilty for his/her own choices. If you want to deal crack and you get caught don't blame society when you get busted. Furthermore, when you live 30 minutes from LSU. Take the city bus. sacrifice to have what you want. I would say less than 5% of the people in this state dont have the ability to learn. Its all about choices.

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  20. I wonder if there's a way to recreate that victimization culture. I recently read something that talked about black children that were ostracized or bullied for their academic successes. These children were, predictably, failing in school within a year or two. It was such a sad article to see that there are, OF COURSE, tons of children of all stripes that are engaged in the process of educating themselves, but are punished for that effort.

    I honestly don't think we can affect change on a macro scale. It's got to come from some micro place on the chart and grow from there. programs and policies only further bring attention to such slogans as "racial inequality" "educational parity" and "the race divide". As well intentioned as they are, they typically serve to further alienate us from each other.

    Who knows. I certainly wish I did.

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