Friday, October 26, 2007

We Don't Know What Happened in Jena Until We Ask The White Folk

In the latest rendition of "White southerners are the most credible sources about racial going-ons in the south", we get this article by Jena local Craig Franklin alleging several "myths" about how the story has been coverage. It's really rather pathetic, but unsurprisingly it sounds "entirely believable" to Jonah Goldberg. Essentially, the warrants for the "myths" are that this resident has Black friends. Indeed, "Jena is a wonderful place to live for both whites and blacks," and soon they will go back to their idyllic state of integrated happiness and light, "Just as it has been all along"(!!!) Honestly, who could believe this claptrap? This is a town that voted overwhelmingly for Klansman David Duke as recently as the 1990s.

The mendacity of this is unbelievable. Myth #4 is that of the "DA's Threat to Black Students." How do we know its a myth? Because the DA denies it, of course! Who you gonna believe, a respectable member of the community, or Black people? Myths #5 & 6 similarly appear to rely on (probably White) eyewitness testimony as definitive proof that Black folk are lying. The first sentence of Myth #9 ("Mychal Bell's All-White Jury") is a concession that it isn't a myth after-all, his jury was, in fact, all White. In Myth #2, we're supposed to believe that a White high schooler in Louisiana doesn't know the racial history behind a noose. I can scarcely think of a claim that strains credibility more. And so on and so forth. It stuns me that this is being accorded any credibility whatsoever.

Taking a class on civil rights history this term, one thing that is being impressed upon me quite clearly, from reading a wide variety of sources (primary and secondary) is that when it comes to racial politics and policy in the south, Whites have no credibility. Not because Black people never lie, but because Whites have been historically near-pathological in their willingness to deny racism in the south. They did it because they knew any assertion they made in opposition to a Black person would automatically be accepted as true, no matter how outlandish. This was a key brick in the wall of White supremacy, and it conditioned White folk to feel comfortable rewriting reality, secure in the knowledge that they'd never be called on it. It was a general corruption of the entire idea of truth, and it is embedded in America's racial discourse in the form of Derrick Bell's "rules of racial standing":
Not only are blacks' complaints discounted, but black victims of racism are less effective witnesses than are whites, who are members of the oppressor class. This phenomenon reflects a widespread assumption that blacks, unlike whites, cannot be objective on racial issues and will favor their own no matter what. This deep seated belief fuels a continuing effort - despite all manner of Supreme Court decisions intended to curb the practice - to keep black people off juries in cases involving race. Black judges hearing racial cases are eyed suspiciously and sometimes asked to recuse themselves in favor of a white judge - without those making the request even being aware of the paradox in their motions.

I'm not saying every Black charge is right and every White denial is wrong. I'm saying that, given a clash of story, Blacks should be accorded presumptive validity barring clear evidence to the contrary. There is precisely no grounds, when hearing a Black account and White account of a given racial event in America, to default in favor of the White view. There is a lot of grounds for doing the opposite. Extreme position? Perhaps. But historically, it's been borne out time and again. And I can see no other explanation for why someone like Mr. Goldberg would find such an absurd apologia to be even remotely compelling.


Anonymous said...

For one moment, let us allow ourselves the luxury of looking at the Jena 6 situation using the type of logic train that their supporters use.

Mychal Bell was adjudicated for a battery charge and placed on probation. Normal if this was his first offense.

Bell was later adjudicated for a property destruction charge. DA Reed Walters agreed with extending his current probation with another. Everyone deserves a second chance, right?

Then Bell was adjudicated with a second battery charge, his third felony. Well, ok, he’s a star on our high school football team. We’ll give him a third chance and extend his probation once again.

Whoops, a second destruction of property charge and his fourth felony adjudication? Perhaps if we give him another probation, he will graduate high school, move on to play college ball, and get out of our hair. “Mychal, fly right and you can escape this one-horse town.”

A third assault charge? “Mychal, if we charge you with a fifth juvenile felony, we have to send you to jail. So, here’s the deal. We’re going to charge you as an adult. Cop the plea and we will put you in the first-offender adult program like we did for Justin Sloan, and get you probation again so you can go play college ball. Then when your probation is over, we will clear your record and none of this ever happened.”

Are these the actions of racist, sentence-hungry judges and prosecutors? Or, a compassionate system that seeks, rather than imprisonment, some other judicial means? The latter, obviously. (Remember, we are using the same train of logic now as Bell’s supporters.)

How about another example?

Let’s see, two battery adjudications and now a third assault-charge. Hmm, looks like this young man follows trends.

Next, two destruction of property adjudications and now we have a burned school. Following the logic of Bell’s supporters concerning established trends, obviously Bell was the arsonist responsible.

So, there we have it. In the very scenario painted by the Jena 6 supporters and using their logic, we have here a prosecutor and a judge whose lack of getting tough on crime (damned liberals anyway) released a serial criminal to assault yet another person and burn down the school.

PG said...

when it comes to racial politics and policy in the south, Whites have no credibility

Um, what about racial politics and policy in the north or west? If NYPD or LAPD claims that a black man was killed because he was resisting arrest, and his companion claims that the deceased was just trying to grab and put on his jacket before he got cuffed, should a different rule of credibility apply?

I agree that Franklin is mildly full of it, but I understand what sparked his article. It gets really old to have the South painted as the only place in America that has racial problems. I saw this happen before in Jasper, TX -- a horrible racist murder, for which the perpetrators were convicted and punished by the death penalty, was painted as somehow typifying the attitudes of everyone in the area.

As I've noted before, modern conservatives actually lack the sense of history that used to be a hallmark of conservatism. So to Goldberg, what is important in assessing black-white credibility is not what happened before he was born, but what has happened since then. And since that time, there have been a few highly publicized incidents in which black people did lie, most famously Tawana Brawley. Conservatives never quite remember the other incidents, like Susan Smith accusing the Generic Scary Black Man of killing the children she herself had murdered.

I will say that in light of black people's apparent ability to lie as well as white people do, I don't like the idea of assuming credibility on a racial basis.

Re: dsf's comment:

"the logic of Bell's supporters concerning established trends"


David Schraub said...

I'm not trying to externalize racism to just the south, but I do think its important to localize the particular racial environment that I think is rather unique to the south with regards to race (even though many other areas are also racism, sometimes rabidly so).

While Bell's "rules of racial standing" apply, I think, across the board, what makes the south unique isn't that only Whites lied or that Blacks never did. Rather, its that White lies with regards to race got to the point of being habitual, it was an accepted part of racial discourse to just deny, deny, deny knowing that the White account would be given precedence regardless of actual fact. That, to my knowledge, hasn't been replicated in the north -- there isn't the same view that you can literally say anything about a racial incident and it will be accepted as true, simply virtue of your Whiteness.

PG said...

there isn't the same view that you can literally say anything about a racial incident and it will be accepted as true, simply virtue of your Whiteness.

Do you honestly think that white southerners today believe that whatever they say will be taken as the truth? That their word is always better than every black person's? The guy writing this article basically is pitting what he claims to have heard from the town as a whole against what the Jena 6 have said. Because he's a shitty reporter, he doesn't specify who he talked to and what their race was, but it seems likely that at least a few of all the students and teachers he's claiming as sources are African American and that there could be genuine disagreement on the facts (maybe some black students really do have the impression that it wasn't a "whites only" tree, etc.), instead of just the either-or that the blacks are lying or the whites are.

I just think that coming in with the stated assumption that you will always believe southern blacks before southern whites is a very bad way to get to the truth of a matter.

David Schraub said...

It's a rebuttable presumption, not a hard-and-fast rule, but this reporter didn't come close to meeting it -- certainly not to justify calling the opposing claims "myths".