Free at Last?


Late last year six black teenagers were charged-as adults-with attempted murder, for beating a white classmate in rural Jena, Louisiana. The beating followed a series of racially charged incidents, including the hanging of nooses from a tree on school property. Though the district attorney eventually reduced the excessive charge to battery, widespread outrage had already been aroused, and in August tens of thousands of civil-rights protestors descended on Jena, bringing with them intense national media coverage.

Large-scale civil-rights marches are uncommon these days, and the protests against the treatment of the “Jena 6,” as the young men came to be known, provided a glimpse of racial tensions that all too often get papered over. This revelation followed on the heels of a hotly contested Supreme Court decision narrowly overturning school integration plans in Seattle and Louisville. Taken together, the two events make it clear that Americans remain as divided as ever over how to think about the legacy of racism in the United States-and what to do about it.

As a white professor who teaches social ethics at a historically black university, I reflect on this question almost daily. The debate is unnecessarily confused. Everyone seems to be talking about freedom, yet few acknowledge that the word is being used in very different ways. The difference lies in how freedom relates to opportunity. On the one hand, freedom can mean the choices we make with the opportunities we are given. But it can also mean the amount of opportunity available to us. Being born into a community rich in opportunity-or one lacking in it-has profound implications for our freedom. Many white people think that the thirty-odd years since most legal discrimination was abolished, plus the decades of social-assistance programs, mean we can stop worrying about race. And many black people know that a disproportionately high number of African Americans remain mired in poverty, crime, and hopelessness.

The scriptures of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam contain another way to frame the two dimensions of freedom. Each religious tradition exhorts its adherents to live up to divine expectations of righteousness. God, speaking through the prophets, also expects that the poor and the vulnerable will be protected by a commitment to justice. In biblical times, whenever societies allowed this justice to fail, and the poor to remain isolated and ignored, they incurred the prophet’s wrath. But how would a prophet speak today about race and social justice in a way that would enable Americans to move beyond the current impasse?

First, despite the enduring legacy and the persistence of racism, it needs to be said that lobbing accusations of racism is not helpful. Indeed, such accusations can have the paradoxical effect of reducing the problem to the need for a change of heart, rather than the need for a change in public policy. Instead, we should focus on responsibility. Both the rich and the poor have responsibilities. Those who live in opportunity-rich communities, for example, often work to keep lower-cost housing out of their neighborhoods. They need to be reminded that “personal responsibility” should include not only taking care of one’s own family but also addressing injustice.

On a broader scale, we need to recognize that the very structure of our political system perpetuates the isolation of those who live in opportunity-poor neighborhoods, concentrating poverty and hopelessness in relatively few political districts, thereby further diminishing the political power of the residents. And the courts haven’t helped much of late. The Supreme Court ruling on public-school integration in Louisville and Seattle failed to help us understand how to reduce racial inequality. Chief Justice John Roberts’s attempt to minimize the scope, meaning, and implications of Brown v. Board of Education was, at best, naive. In fact, Brown was a judicial intervention designed to curtail the ability of federal, state, and local governments to perpetuate racial inequality by giving blacks an inferior education.

Yet the dissent by Justice Stephen Breyer was not as “eloquent and unanswerable” as Justice John Paul Stevens seemed to believe. Breyer spent over half his sixty-eight-page opinion arguing that integration programs are permissible. But lots of unfortunate things are constitutionally permissible; and Breyer’s attempt to clarify why such programs might be desirable was unconvincing. He cited no instance of actual harm caused by the Seattle and Louisville school systems. (In fact, both systems offered an unsually wide choice of schools for all students, making them something of a racial Shangri-La compared with systems in which students are limited to the school district in which they reside.) Finally, although Breyer appealed to the “democratic” value of creating educational systems that reflect a “pluralistic society”-an argument that makes racial diversity a legitimate concern-he never explained how much diversity is enough. Nor did he help us understand the rather confusing claim by the Louisville school administration that schools where 85 percent of the students are white are racially acceptable, while schools where 51 percent of the students are black are unacceptable. What’s a self-respecting black student to make of that?

The Jena 6 protests were another missed opportunity to advance the discussion on racial inequality. The protests made clear that racism still drastically affects people’s lives, especially when it is bolstered by judicial and political power. But the demand to “Free the Jena 6” gave many outsiders the impression that protestors thought the six teens should not be held responsible for the attack on the white student. What casual observers could not see was the background of the incident: that groups of white students had previously attacked blacks with impunity; that the white district attorney in Jena had allegedly threatened black students at the school, warning them he could ruin their lives with the “stroke of a pen.” These facts were underreported, and so the message the wider public took away from “Free the Jena 6” was that demands for racial justice are at odds with the demands of personal responsibility.

A different slogan-say, “Equal Lives, Equal Justice”-could have focused more clearly on the problem of racial disparity in the criminal-justice system. But in the end, will anyone change his or her political convictions in order to defend criminals? Reducing racial inequality requires seeing the consequences of history and policy not on criminals, but on human beings. And while much can be accomplished through changes in public policy, what’s most lacking is what’s most needed: the sympathy and support of mainstream white America. This is what perplexes my students. While many of them are willing to accept that greater attention to personal responsibility is necessary in many poor black neighborhoods, they also wonder why so few white people feel a responsibility to eliminate the legacies of slavery and discrimination.

We hear it all the time: Americans are a believing people. But belief in God demands empathy and solidarity with those who suffer, even when this means supporting people who have made bad choices. Too many Americans have concluded that persistent racial inequality is not their problem. This denial of responsibility lies at the heart of our abiding racial problem.

Published in the 2007-11-23 issue: 

Joe Pettit is an assistant professor in the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Morgan State University in Baltimore.

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