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Race and Coverage of the Jena 6: The Elephant That is Never Leaving the Room

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Earlier this month, I received an email forward that, unlike most others, stopped me in my tracks. This particular message was from colourofchange, an African-American lobbying group, and was not the usual invitation to attend a swanky fundraiser or join a junior board. It recounted that disturbing tale of the Jena 6, whose responses to racial hate crimes and subsequent criminal sentencing is reminiscent of the Jim Crow era.

Unless you were glued to CNN or MSNBC Thursday afternoon, your response to this question before today would have probably been the same as mine. Who are the Jena 6?

The Jena 6 are six African-American high school students from Jena, Louisiana who were arrested and charged with attempted second degree murder and conspiracy to commit second-degree murder after their alleged involvement in an assault on a white student. That the students were charged for what amounts to a schoolyard fight is news in itself, but what is more troubling is that the District Attorney, Reed Walters, chose to charge the students as adults.

Jena 6 is a story of tenuous race relations in a town that the Civil Rights Act forgot. At the beginning of the first semester last year, a black student at Jena High School asked for permission to sit under the a tree that had traditionally been a meeting place for white students. He was told that he could sit wherever he wanted. The following day, students arrived to see the tree adorned with three hangman's nooses, each painted in the school colors.

The story then follows an all too familiar path. Black students protest nooses at school. White students attend a nearby school as punishment while their actions are dismissed as a silly prank. Black student tries to enter largely white party. When white students attack and beat him, the student who breaks bottle over his head is charged with a misdemeanor and given probation.

White student threatens black students with a gun in a grocery store. Black students wrestle gun away from him and are charged with second-degree robbery. White student taunts black student about his beating with racial epithets. Black students beat him and he suffers bruising and concussion. Black students are charged as adults for attempted second-degree murder.

From the email, the Jena case appeared to be a textbook account of racial disparities in criminal justice. I immediately perused the New York Times website for a tell-all article. I found no mention of the Jena 6, Jena, Louisiana or any Jena at all, unless you count the young actress Jena Malone. The Grey Lady, the true bastion of white, liberal, middle class intellectualism had chosen to sit this one out? The Washington Post was a little better. However, among national dailies, only the Chicago newspapers gave the Jena 6 their just due with regular, thorough updates. Other than that, the real scoop was to be found in blogs, political websites, and the organized grassroots of NPR podcasts. Have we become so complacent about the lethal cocktail of race and crime bubbling at the surface of this country's justice system that the Jena 6 is not worth significant newspaper space?

Perhaps news editors and the American public are just "raced out". The Jena story comes after the Duke lacrosse debacle, Don Imus' gross display, and the disgusting torture of Megan Williams. Even the most optimistic may reasonably question the elimination of the specter of race from the face of criminal and public justice -- and frustrated, may try to dismiss it, as the elephant that is never leaving the room. On Thursday, I wore black in support of the Jena 6, and turned on CNN's webstream in my office so that I could quietly watch the thousands who gathered in Washington and Jena, Louisiana at rallies in support of the Jena 6. They served as a fervent reminder of the realities of criminal injustice across racial lines, even if The New York Times didn't.