I was home sick on the couch flipping through channels one Thursday, after the soaps had ended, and landed on The Dr. Phil Show. That day’s show was about the Jena Six incident and Dr. Phil had on as his guests the white boy who was beaten up by six black boys, his parents and some school officials of a Jena, Louisiana, high school. The schoolyard fight occurred in December 2006, after white students hung three nooses from a shade tree in the schoolyard after a group of black students asked for permission to sit under that tree. Almost a year later the national media had finally picked up the story. Everyday, bold type-faced headlines like “Jena is America” appeared in publications across the US.
What is remarkable, beyond the act of hanging nooses in this age of political correctness, is that the white Jena residents said there was no racial tension before the incident came to the attention of the media. Dr. Phil proceeded to squander the opportunity to help his studio audience and the national television viewers understand why the rage of those black students could be so readily (and violently) ignited by the threatening specter of lynch mobs and the not-so-subtle reminder of their second-class standing in the community.
Copy-cat incidents have occurred in a few other locations around the country since Jena. It happened this month in a university residence hall in which I work. There is some trouble with vandalism every year — writing on the walls, some of it hateful words like “bitch” and symbols like swastikas; breaking screens and/or windows; punching holes in walls; stuffing lit firecrackers in oranges and rolling them down a hallway where they explode. But one morning in early October a noose was found hanging from a shower head in a men’s bathroom. When it was brought to the attention of the all-white student hall council, they were unmoved.
But when a group of residence hall managers were informed of the incident during a routine weekly meeting, the only black person in attendance, Jasmine Williams, gasped in disbelief. She told me later that she felt very uncomfortable sitting through the rest of that meeting and didn’t even want to eat lunch with the group that day. She said she was disturbed about working in such an environment. She also expressed concern regarding her position of authority in the residence hall. “What if someone thinks I cross the line? Am I gonna come home to find the word ‘nigger’ written on my board? Am I gonna find a noose outside my door? Find my car in flames?”
During our conversation, Williams repeated a sentiment that James Baldwin expressed in “Down at the Cross” in 1962: black Americans don’t feel as if they have a country to call their own. “For everyone else has, is, a nation, with a specific location and flag . . . It is the so-called ‘American Negro’ who remains trapped, disinherited, and despised, in a nation that has kept him in bondage for nearly four-hundred years and is still unable to recognize him as a human being,” he wrote. Williams wondered, What do black Americans have to show for the riches and achievements of the United States, some of which was realized through the toil of black slaves and their offspring?
“George Bush doesn’t care about black people,” asserted Kanye West, a popular hip hop artist, nearly choking in anguish on his words during a live telethon for victims of Hurricane Katrina. For many Americans, the crisis of Katrina revealed the cold truth of the interconnection between poverty and blackness in the United States. Everyone watching the disaster unfold was a witness to the stark evidence of West’s proclamation, reinforced by the pathetic response for those “so poor and they are so black,” as CNN’s Wolf Blitzer referred to the miserable people of New Orleans. Bush claimed no one could have foreseen the levees breaking, but it had been predicted at least a decade before. It was revealed months later that the administration had evidence of broken levees and the impending flooding more than a day before the public and even the media were made aware of it. Compare that to the quick response to California fires — where the homes of affluent and mostly white Californians are burning — and you see where priorities lie.
This blatant racism is not strictly a southern problem. The reality that black Americans have yet to realize the equal opportunity goals of the civil rights movement of the ’60s is confirmed in recent news articles from across the United States: blacks have lower income levels and higher rates of poverty; less accumulated wealth, including home-ownership and other assets that can be passed from one generation to another; lower academic achievement; higher rates of high school suspension; higher representation in foster care; higher infant mortality; higher rates of incarceration, with longer sentences for similar offenses; and on and on and on.
But the white majority should take a step back and notice that the prosperity gap between haves and have-nots is no longer just about color; it’s about who controls wealth and power. “Color is not a human or personal reality; it is a political reality,” Baldwin wrote back when blacks were marching in the streets, demanding a stake in the American dream. But over the past several decades the dream has been hijacked from all of us. Through a feedback loop of power consolidation, fed largely by corporate lobbyists with financial “donations” to politicians’ campaigns and pet projects, lawmakers have deregulated public utilities, promoted regressive tax codes, privatized health care, allowed concentration of media ownership, and attempted (but failed, so far) to privatize social security, funneling America’s wealth into the hands of a few corporate and political elites. We all work for them now.
Those few elites are whittling away securities Americans have taken for granted — pollution regulation, a rigorous and diverse free press, strong labor unions, job, health care and pension security — in the name of economic growth. In the interminable war on terror, in the name of national security, civil liberties, such as the right to privacy, free speech and due process, are also being stripped bare. As Cornel West, Princeton religion professor and public intellectual, put it: “Since 911, the whole nation has been niggerized.”
Could it be that, having denied one sub-group of people access to America’s bounty, we have diminished the blessings of democracy for the group as a whole?