09/04/2007 03:34 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Preventing The Next 'Jena 6'

I grew up in Nashville, TN. Nashville is not the "deep south," and it has become much more diverse since the 80s with different immigrant populations settling in the area, but I still remember that distinctive form of southern racism. Don't get me wrong, there's plenty of racism to go around this country, and I've heard people of color say they actually prefer the more blatant, yet friendly segregation of the deep south to the vague, liberal brand of "I'm not a racist, some of my closest friends are black" sentiment often found in northern cities. A friend was telling me how her friend's southern family treated their African American help as one of their own, she was literally "part of the family." In the southern framework, everything is fine as long as people know their place -- but when they step out of it or into traditionally white places without being invited first, all hell can break loose.

I'm writing about this because of what went down in Jena, Louisiana. From the CNN article:

In September 2006, as the school year kicked off, a black Jena High School student asked the vice principal if he and some friends could sit under an oak tree where the white students typically congregated.

Told by the vice principal they could sit wherever they pleased, the student and his pals plopped down under the sprawling branches of a shade tree in the campus courtyard.

The next day, students arrived at school to find three nooses hanging from those branches.

...According to The Town Talk in nearby Alexandria, the school's principal recommended expulsion for those behind the nooses. Instead, the newspaper reported, a school district committee overruled the recommendation and suspended three white students for three days for hanging the nooses, a gesture written off as a "prank."

... On November 30, someone torched the school's main academic building. The arson remains unsolved, but many suspect it's linked to the discord strangling Jena High.

Four days after the arson, several students jumped a white classmate, Justin Barker, knocking him unconscious before stomping and kicking him.

Parents of the Jena Six say they heard Barker was hurling racial epithets. Barker's parents say he did nothing to provoke the beating.

Barker was taken to the hospital with injuries to both eyes and ears, as well as cuts. His right eye had blood clots, said his mother, Kelli Barker. Justin Barker was treated and released that day.

The "Jena 6" -- all African American teen boys -- were originally charged with attempted murder (the judge has reduced the charges to second-degree battery and conspiracy), and there are big questions as to whether they'll get a fair trial. It's a shame that it even got to this point. As soon as those nooses appeared, the school should have brought in help to facilitate a real dialogue about racism between students. It's not something people want to talk about -- it's hard and gut wrenching and painful. But taking a day or two to really engage students about the history of racism in this country and how these attitudes can continue to lurk under the surface consciously or unconsciously, could have possibly stemmed the escalating violence. Incidents like this remind us that while this generation may be the most diverse (and tolerant) in history, racism still exists and needs to be addressed head on with skilled facilitators who can create a safe space for this important dialogue to occur.

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