Symbolic Nooses Reveal Racial Divide


Protests sparked by the hanging of three nooses from a Louisiana schoolyard tree have sparked a series of copycat acts, further fueling a debate over America's lingering legacy of racial injustice and violence.

Last Thursday campus police at Indiana State University received a report of a hemp noose about four inches in diameter hanging in a tree between two campus buildings. By the time police arrived, according to the Terre Haute Tribune Star, the noose had apparently blown away.

The following night at a concert in Terre Haute, rock performer and Indiana native son John Mellencamp speculated the perpetrators might have thought the act was funny, before lecturing concert-goers about the wounding legacy of the symbol of racial hatred.

"That's not funny, and it's not what this country is about," Mellencamp said, before launching into "Jena," a new song that itself sparked controversy when the mayor of the infamous hometown of the "Jena Six" protested that it unfairly cast the town as an epicenter of racial injustice and bigotry.

With a few exceptions, the response to Jena tends to break down along racial lines, observed Alan Bean of Friends of Justice, the white American Baptist minister credited with bringing international media attention to the small-town civil-rights case turned microcosm of America's original sin of racism.

"White people often have a hard time seeing a noose hanging from a tree as a big deal," Bean said in a recent blog. "Many African-Americans refuse to see Justin Barker as a victim. White people tend to identify with Jena's white residents; black people commonly demonize them. Few observers on either side of the racial divide understand how bizarre missteps by a handful of public officials created a toxic environment for all students, black and white."

Since a Sept. 20 rally brought thousands of mostly black marchers to Jena, a predominantly white town of about 3,000 residents, the use of nooses as a symbol of hate has cropped up in other places.

Someone hung a noose on the door of a black professor at Columbia University, sparking campus outrage.

The town of Hempstead, N.Y., announced mandatory diversity training after discovery of two nooses at the town's highway department.

Two nooses were found in the lockers of two black New York City Parks Department supervisors and another was discovered hanging from a lamppost in front of a post office near the former World Trade Center site.

Other incidents included nooses found at Home Depot stores in New Jersey and Illinois, the U.S. Coast Guard Academy and the University of Maryland.

New York lawmakers are considering a law making it a felony to display lynchings in a threatening manner. A drilling company just paid $290,000 to settle an EEOC lawsuit alleging it subjected African-American men to a racially hostile work environment that included hangman's nooses.

A family in Stratford, Conn., took down a "hanging man" Halloween decoration in their front yard after black leaders, clergy and neighbors complained that it resembled a black man hanging from a noose.

An interactive "noose watch" by DiversityInc.com reported 37 noose incidents known to have been reported to authorities.

While many whites may be unaware of images of white mobs lynching blacks in the Old South, African-American families often grow up with stories of distant relatives who died that way.

Between 1882 and 1968, there were a documented 4,743 lynchings in the United States, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. Usually black men, the victims were beaten, hanged and mutilated, often in public squares. White families would watch and take photos, and those committing the acts went unpunished.

That history is one reason why black and white Americans report vastly different perceptions of race relations in the country.

A recent poll found that African-Americans pay far more attention to news stories that imply the justice system is unfair to blacks.

The poll conducted for CNN by Opinion Research Corp. found that 35 percent of whites, compared with 10 percent of blacks, said that they did not know enough about the Jena Six case to respond to questions.

Seventy-nine percent of blacks compared with 33 percent of whites knew enough about the case to say that the six black teenagers in Jena, La., were treated unfairly by the town's justice system.

Twenty-nine percent of whites and 10 percent of blacks thought that the black teenagers were treated fairly.

Al Sharpton, Martin Luther King III and other civil-rights leaders are organizing a Nov. 16 march on Washington to call for tougher prosecution of hate-crime laws by local and state officials as well as the federal government.

Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.

Previous articles:

Defending the Poor … and the Prisoner

American Baptist Pastor Brings International Spotlight to Jena 6

American Baptist Activist Says Jena March Signals New Civil Rights Movement

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Tags: Bob Allen, Race, Racism