Sunday, September 16, 2007

Writing about the Jena Six

In the last couple of months, I was heartened to see all the people who blogged about the Jena Six, the journalists who began to cover it, the films and documentaries made. But I noticed some things in the coverage with which I took issue (yes, aside from the fact that national news outlets were a loooong time coming).

First, was this South-as-other-syndrome (closely related to the racism-is-a-thing-of-the-past-in-the-rest-of-the-nation syndrome). I read over and over, articles and posts that implied racism was a southern phenomenon that had died out in the rest of the U.S. some four of five decades ago. Lots of links between racism and the deep South, lots of "Wow, it must be like the 1950s down there!", lots of impassioned denunciations from southern expatriates and "I may have never lived there, but I just know how it is" other-region-ers.

And I thought, "Whoa." Now, part of my academic work is based on the idea that, in matters of race and color, the South does have an exceptionally poor record and a dogged determination, exhibited throughout U.S. history, to maintain the status quo--a racial hierarchy with African Americans, and especially poor African Americans, at the bottom.

But the South is not some anomaly, some other place from which the rest of the U.S. can separate itself. To think of racism and legal injustice as southern problems is analagous to the 19th century idea that slavery was a southern institution. It is also to dismiss and reduce the racism that permeates the whole of this country, its institutions, its cultures, its very foundations.

Rather than thinking of the South as an abnormality, we might better think of it as a bellwether. For example, the labor historian in me would point out while the South may have been particularly anti-union and anti-worker, the rest of the country seems to have followed suit. And, while thousands of African Americans migrated north- and westward in the first half of the 20th century, something is now pushing us out and pulling us back to the South (in other words, do racism and lack of opportunity play a role in the North's loss of status as a "promised land?").

I am also particularly troubled by this desire to cast racism, references to lynching, and different treatment within the legal system as some held over anachronism. No, it's not just like the 1950s. It's just like the 21st century because it is the 21st century, and the shit happens all the time. I remember the outrage I heard from one DJ in Texas when she found out that a school in Georgia just held an integrated prom this year. It was ridiculous, she thought, and someone should have done something and this couldn't happen anywhere else! I thought, hell, it was just like that at my old high school until a few years ago. And to pretend that children in other areas don't live in a segregated world just because they don't go to segregated proms is just fake to me.

And speaking of segregation-by-tradition, this idea that the town of Jena "split" over the last year (or divided or separated or any of those other titles I read) over the circumstances surrounding the Jena Six is simplistic, as well. So many towns down here do not split along racial lines over some significant event. Instead, it is a split that is long cultivated, that is instilled in us early and reinforced and maintained throughout our lives. In other words, Jena residents did not "divide" over these cases; these cases deepened and sharpened an already existing rift.


Kimberly said...

Very well said. I couldn't agree more.

Derrick said...

I agree. I think that this notion that racism is simply a southern thing is a joke. I have a couple of post coming that deals with issue as well. One includes Jena like behavior in rural Indiana.

One thing that I always point out, that most of the most of the cities most known for racist police abuse are outside the south (New York, L.A., Cincinati, Phili, Seattle etc.)

Gwyneth Bolton said...

Great post, Elle! You are right on point. People like to delude themselves by "othering" the South. But the truth is racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, heterosexism... are all alive and well throughout the entire country. They surface in different ways, but they are still here.


Melissa McEwan said...

Great post, Elle.

Btw, HBO is airing a documentary about Little Rock Central that I wanted to point out to you in case you hadn't heard about it (and apologies if you already have). I saw a trailer for it last night, and it was very striking how obvious, merely by nature of where kids were sitting in the lunchroom, how not in the past segregation is.

elle said...

thanks for the comments--I worried about my lack of concrete-ness, but y'all got it :-)!

and thanks for the tip, melissa.

ernest said...


I'm glad this blog was pointed out to me!

The overall scope of racism is not a generally discussed topic. Certainly, as was so insightfully pointed out, we here in the north see a variant of the same thing.

Professor Zero said...

The post is actually quite concrete and I'm tempted to say it's the best I've seen on this subject - I may be forgetting someone so let's say one of the very best since it addresses issues like the othering of the south, the destructiveness of the notion that racism was a thing of the past, etc., and introduces ideas such as the south as bellwether.

Actually I think I have only just understood, via this post, how problematic the idea that racism is in the past, or is an anomaly which takes place over there, is. I mean,
I understood it before, but I *saw* it, which is different.

La Reyna said...

Thank you for bringing out the long-standing myth by the media and Americans generally that the South being the bastion of racism.
What about the antiblack draft riots of NYC in 1863? It's only recently that historians and scholars are discussing about this and only in neutral tones. Does Central Park, Bensonhurst, Howard Beach, Rodney King, LA Riots, Detroit riots, East St. Louis, Amadou Diallo, Sean Bell, Sundown Towns ring a bell? These incidents occur outside of the South. So the idea that the South being a Bastion of racism is a lie, for racism is alive and well in North and West.

Stephanie B.

Revelations and ruminations from one southern sistorian...