Monday, October 1, 2007

Beyond Jena

By Michelle Alexander, Associate professor of Law at the Moritz College of Law with a joint appointment at the Kirwan Institute

I have been asked many times what I think about the “Jena 6,” the now infamous case involving six young, African American high school students in Jena, Louisiana who were charged as adults with second-degree murder following a schoolyard beating of a white student days after nooses were hung from a nearby tree. “Isn’t it an outrage?” my friends and acquaintances say. “Aren’t you shocked that these kids could spend the rest of their lives in prison for a schoolyard fight?”

By the tone of their questions, it is clear they expect me to share their shock and awe. But I do not. Reluctantly, I have come to expect racial injustice in the criminal justice system.

I know mothers whose sons are serving life sentences in adult prisons for extremely minor, non-violent drug offenses, such as possession of a small amount of marijuana or cocaine. I am confident they, too, are angered by the treatment of the Jena 6. But I wonder, if they wonder, where the news cameras and protesters were when their sons were sent away for life.

Thousands of young black men are sent to prison every year for minor drug offenses in this country with little protest. Most of these men and boys live in large urban areas, ghettos, in the core of formerly industrial cities of the North where factories have closed and work has largely disappeared. In these cities, more than two-thirds of young African American men are currently in prison or under the control of the criminal justice system. These youth are ushered from their decrepit, under-funded schools to brand new, high tech prisons often for crimes far less severe than those allegedly committed by the Jena 6.

Upon their release, they are stamped with a badge of inferiority, known as a criminal record, and relegated to a second-class status. Former prisoners may be denied the right to vote and legally discriminated against in access to employment, housing, education, public benefits, and jury service. In my view, the second-class status afforded thousands of African Americans in the name of the War on Drugs is a more powerful reminder of Jim Crow than the nooses hanging from the trees in Jena. So let us pray for the Jena 6 and their families, but remember they are not alone.

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