Jena Rhetoric Stops Progress, Stifles Debate

We received a lot of e-mails at THE HOYA last week wanting to know why we didn’t have more coverage of campus opinion about the Jena Six. A few people even asked me to write in this week’s column about why we should stand up for six teenage boys in Louisiana who were charged with battery* in connection with the beating of one of their classmates.

The event has stirred up emotions across the country and at Georgetown, where groups advocating for those six young men have posted fliers and covered the bricks of Red Square with their slogans of support.

It’s an important issue in part because the six teens involved belonged to a high school with a recent history of hateful, allegedly racially-motivated events, and in part because many view the teens’ punishments as excessive.

But the reason most people seem to care is because the victim and the assailants were different colors.

To be honest, I didn’t want to write about it.

Anyone who knows me well enough to have had conversations with me about things like this knows that I think that the concept of race is a stupid, dehumanizing method of classifying people into artificial groups for the purpose of discrimination.

Period.

But the reason that I didn’t want to write about the Jena Six wasn’t because I don’t believe in race.

The reason I didn’t want to write about the Jena Six was because, like many people, I’m AFRAID to talk about it.

At Georgetown, like everywhere else, the issue has already become saturated by racial overtones, and no conversation about it now can be taken seriously unless it includes a racial opinion. Last week on our campus and across the country, people gathered at vigils for the six teens. Many people claimed to be protesting what they considered to be the harsh sentencing of these young men, but any legitimate complaints are quickly becoming clouded in the caustic and polarizing atmosphere that surrounds conversations about race.

Anyone who takes a position on issues of race presupposes that there is a qualitative difference between the actions, beliefs and values of people from groups of different colors.

That’s dumb.

And while conversations about race have the potential to discuss why and how we could learn to ignore our visual differences and create a better society – and eventually stop worrying about race at all – it’s an all-too-common occurrence that those who are afraid to let the notion of race die will kill the discourse by labeling someone with whom they disagree as a racist.

And once someone calls you a racist, you’re screwed.

If I even dare to take a position in this column that doesn’t agree with the loudest voices, I will be accused of the one thing which can destroy any American’s reputation, and of which so many people are easily accused.

I would be scared to say that the Jena Six should go to jail, because – regardless of their color – they beat a kid until he was unconscious. If that were what I believed, of course.

I would also be terrified to point out that if other allegedly racially motivated activities, like the hanging of nooses by three other students at Jena High, were somehow connected to the Jena Six’s attack on their classmate, there are more appropriate ways to deal with them than to beat someone.

Somehow, I would even be scared to say that anyone who hangs a noose in the South to make a point should go to jail, too. For a long time.

The issue at hand is no longer about a fight (if you can call it that) that happened on one Cajun night. What matters now is how we are reacting to it.

We should recognize that there is nothing good that can come out of the way that many people, such as Rev. Al Sharpton, have referred to the Jena Six’s punishment as “Southern injustice.” It’s not only unfair to an entire region of our country that is still struggling to heal from the wounds caused by previous generations, but it blatantly ignores the possibility that events like that could happen anywhere. In fact, we should be less concerned with the Jena Six’s convictions than with whatever caused so much violence and hate in such a small town in the first place.

All of the tragic events that happened in Jena are regrettable. But we have an obligation, especially as students, to analyze what went wrong in that small Louisiana town and learn how to prevent it, and not to contribute to what is increasingly becoming a conversation with a decidedly negative, racist tone. On all sides. Such negativity prevents important conversations from happening. And it’s much more difficult to solve problems when people are afraid to talk. Or when columnists are afraid to write.

The need for meaningful discourse – not continued, polarizing racial division – should be the lesson of Jena.

D. Pierce Nixon is a senior in the College and a contributing editor for THE HOYA. He can be contacted at nixonthehoya.com. DAYS ON THE HILLTOP appears every other Tuesday.

*The column “Jena Rhetoric Stops Progress, Stifles Debate” (THE HOYA, Sept. 25, 2007, A3) incorrectly stated that all six students charged with battery in connection with the beating of one their classmates in Jena, La., have been convicted. Only one of the six students, Mychal Bell, has been convicted of the charge, but the conviction was since overturned on the grounds that he should have been charged as a juvenile.

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