Monday, September 24, 2007

Jena 6: The Facts Do Matter

You know, I'd be a lot more inclined to share the outrage in the Jena 6 case if the outraged people were a bit more careful about the facts. Case-in-point: Amina Luqman's Friday Washington Post column. This is Luqman's summary of the facts:

The basic points are these: In the predominantly white town of Jena, La., white students hung three nooses last September after black students sat under a schoolyard tree where white students normally congregated. The white students were suspended for three days. After black students protested peacefully, the LaSalle Parish district attorney threatened them, saying: "I can make your life go away with a stroke of a pen." Eventually there was a schoolyard fight in which a white student was beaten; he was treated for a concussion and multiple bruises. Although the student was well enough to attend a school function the same evening, six black boys between the ages of 15 and 17 were arrested, five of whom were charged as adults with attempted murder and conspiracy.

Where to start? Luqman ignores the beating took place several months after the noose incident. Ignores the fact that the District Attorney's comment was made after there had been several racially-tinged fights on campus, and that there is a factual dispute as to whether the "stroke of a pen" statement was directed toward just the black students or the entire student body.

Likewise, the characterization of the attack on Justin Barker as a "schoolyard fight," while not uncommon, is so misleading as to be tantamount to a lie. The word "fight" implies some degree of mutual combat. Justin Barker appears to have been coldcocked and stomped on by a group of attackers. Mychal Bell, had multiple prior convictions. The "school function" that he attended that night was a once-in-a-lifetime ceremony at a small-town school. This would have taken, what, ten minutes of googling? Or the two minutes it took to read my summary of the facts.

So why didn't Luqman bother? Because actually sitting down and thinking about the facts introduces ambiguity, uncertainty, shades of grey. Because you might not be so sure where you stand after a while. But Luqman prefers righteous indignation:

This language presumes a legitimacy to both sides, a fair fight. Yet there is nothing balanced or fair about what is happening to these boys. Black Americans crave the same outrage the media rained down on Michael Vick for his unjustified abuse of dogs. For mainstream America, Vick's actions were beyond debate. "How could he be so cruel?" we lamented. Whatever the reason, mainstream America said clearly that what Vick did was wrong. Shouldn't America be at least as appalled by how Jena has treated these six black teens?

Maybe America should be more appalled by what these six black teens are accused of doing. And by the fact that many of their defenders don't seem to care.

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