Back in the 1960s, General Electric used to button its TV commercials with the slogan, “Progress is our most important product.” With all of the good things GE was bringing to life then, like home hair dryers and electric knives, those words had a kind of veracity. We were moving ahead, and our appliances were coming with us.
Flash forward to the painfully retro events in Jena, Louisiana recently. If that town’s Chamber of Commerce was looking for a snappy slug like the old GE slogans, the closest it might come now is “Welcome to Jena: Please set your watch back 50 years.”
And I’m referring to the entire showcase of events there, not just the initial regrettable sequence of racist expression followed by violent reaction. That was only Act One of the presentation, in all its retro regression. It was determined that there would be a second act, filled with acrimony and even some of that good old time religion.
Since there were several component parts to the initial problem in Jena, here’s a (hopefully fair) compression of what happened in Act One: At an assembly at Jena High School in August, a black student asked the school’s principal if it was okay for the student to sit under a tree on the school’s campus thought to be a gathering place for white students only. The principal later reported that he thought the question was “jocular” and had replied that the student could sit anywhere he wanted. The next morning nooses were found hanging from the tree. The school took disciplinary actions, but the damage was done. Over the following months, incidents of racial tension erupted in Jena, including the attack of a white student by six blacks. Mychal Bell, one of the six, was charged with aggravated battery, and, when tried as an adult, an all-white jury found him guilty. After a number of other legal events, Bell was released under supervision of a probation officer and with electronic monitoring.
But Bell’s journey out of jail was needlessly complicated, and many felt he should be retried as a juvenile. That helped to coalesce a day of rallies in Jena involving an estimated 15,000 to 20,000 peaceful protestors that did little to cool local tensions. Act Two…
In announcing that Bell’s case would go ahead in juvenile court, LaSalle Parish District Attorney Reed Walters had some additional comments, which went out live on CNN and other outlets. Again, the man is a district attorney in Louisiana, and this is transcribed from video: “The only way, let me stress that, the only way that I believe that me or this community has been able to endure the trauma that has been thrust upon us is through the prayers of the Christian people who have sent them up in this community. (Ten seconds of applause.) I firmly believe and am confident of the fact that had it not been for the direct intervention of the Lord Jesus Christ last Thursday (the day of the rallies) a disaster would have happened. You can quote me on that.”
In a September 30 New York Times essay, Harvard professor of sociology Orlando Patterson suggested that in believing that the specific events in Jena and the larger nightmare of disproportionate numbers of blacks in prison were “solely the result of white racism,” well-intended leaders such as Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton were not just living in the past, they were living in denial. Patterson pointed to such present-day causes as unstable families and law enforcement that unfairly focuses on drug crimes with ensuing Draconian mandatory sentencing. In other words, please step into the “now” of racial problems.
And in blatantly exhibiting the kind of prideful ignorance that by now should have been a relic in Southern authority figures, District Attorney Walters reset the national “take” on Southern whites back at least three decades. Both sides found, in Jena, a way to go backwards and take a stand in the present.
True, race is a longtime open wound in the experiment that is America. But if you fold the retro posturing and Bible-thumping from Jena in with the protracted nightmare of Iraq as an echo of Vietnam, you can easily get a sense that your Apple iPhone has dialed you into another dimension besides the future. If progress is going to be our most important product in the 21st century, we’ll have to start by letting go of the past. That includes deploying blanket charges of racism, and demonstrating contempt for the proper conduct of public office by invoking anybody’s “Lord.” And District Attorney Walters, you can quote me on that.