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Complicity Has Its Cost: An Open Letter to the Mayor of Jena


Dear Mayor Murphy McMillin,

 

I hear that you’re angry.

 

Me too.

 

But it appears our outrage is directed at decidedly different targets.

 

I, for one, am angry at the three young white men in your town who, last year, hung nooses from a tree after a black student dared sit under it, thereby touching off several months of racial tension. And I’m mad at their parents for whatever it is they taught their kids – or failed to teach them – that would allow their children to believe such a thing appropriate.

 

But it is not these persons who have elicited your anger.

 

I’m mad at the school superintendent, who declared the noose hanging an "innocent prank," and refused to as much as criticize those responsible, let alone truly punish them.

 

But it is not the superintendent with whom you are upset.

 

I’m angry at the District Attorney, who threatened black students in Jena that he could make their lives disappear with a stroke of his pen, if they didn’t stop all the complaining about the noose incident. And I’m even more enraged by his decision to charge six young black men with attempted murder for beating up a white student (one who had been taunting them prior to the attack and whose family recently had a leader in the white supremacist movement as a guest in their home), while only charging a white man with misdemeanor battery for beating up a black kid a few days earlier.

 

But the D.A. is not the target of your ire. Indeed, I’m told that you two are friends.

 

I’m angry about the conviction (since overturned) of one of the young black men, Mychal Bell, by an all-white jury, and by the utter incompetence with which his court-appointed attorney defended him–calling no witnesses to impeach the testimony of those called by the prosecution, even though there were several who had made clear they were available.

 

But neither the jury, nor the incompetent public defender seems to concern you, at least not enough to have inspired you to write or speak as much as one solitary sentence to that effect.

 

Yet, today you broke your silence and showed us all your anger, an anger that is aimed not inwardly at those in your town who openly express racism or at those who sit by silently and do nothing in the face of it, but rather, outwardly, at singer-songwriter John Mellencamp for daring to release a song about it.

 

You might have been a Mellencamp fan in the past. Lots of folks in small towns are, seeing as how he has long sung the virtues of such places. So long as he wrote about little pink houses, he’d have been alright by you. But with his latest release, in which he implores your town to "put away your nooses," Mellencamp has, apparently, gone too far.

 

I guess you feel it isn’t fair, all this negative publicity. You (and most whites in Jena) think your town is getting a bad rap. The actions of a few, you insist, shouldn’t be allowed to paint an entire community with the broad brush of bigotry.

 

That’s understandable, I suppose.

 

Of course, I do find it interesting that neither you nor any white elected official in Jena have seen fit to label the noose-hanging a racist act and its perpetrators racists. It’s as if you can’t come to say the words, no matter how obviously they fit. Oh sure, you said the act was "hurtful," but nothing more. And you wonder, dear sir, why 20,000 people descended on your town to let you know what they think of you?

 

Does it not give you pause that two-thirds of Jena‘s white folks voted forneo-Nazi, David Duke in 1990 and 1991, when he ran for U.S. Senate and Governor?

 

Or perhaps you were among those two-thirds? After all, you did recently tell white supremacist leader Richard Barrett that you were grateful for the counterdemonstrations he’s been seeking to foment in Jena, in answer to the mostly black protests of last month.

 

Maybe you too supported Duke: a man who not only led the nation’s largest Ku Klux Klan group in the 1970s, but who, as head of the National Association for the Advancement of White People (with which he remained affiliated until the early 90s), called for dividing the U.S. into racial sub-nations and breeding a master race of high-IQ whites. From the back of Duke’s newsletter, he even sold books praising Nazi Germany and denying the Holocaust, but perhaps that wasn’t a big concern of yours.

 

Perhaps you voted for Duke, as most of your white brethren in Jena did, even though you must have heard the radio ad that was airing right up until the Gubernatorial election in 1991: the one featuring a tape recording from just five years earlier, in which Duke responded to a fellow Nazi’s boast that "Hitler started with just seven men," by noting, "We can do it here too if we just put the right package together."

 

Yes indeed, how dare John Mellencamp besmirch the good name of a town like yours, filled with such stellar exemplars of racial amity as could vote for someone like that. How dare he, and how dare we – those of us who have spoken out against the perverted system of justice you dispense in your hamlet – offer our opinions about people and places we don’t know.

 

But here’s the thing Mr. Mayor: we do know you.

 

Oh sure, Jena is not any worse than a lot of other places. And yes, it’s always easy to beat up on some little southern town, making it the presumed seedbed of everything racist, rather than seeing the racism therein as symptomatic of a larger national problem. I’ll give you that much. As a proud southerner that burns me up too.

 

But we know you just the same.

 

The one thing we know for sure, that I know as certainly as I know my own name, is that your town is filled with good Germans. The kind who, irrespective of their own racism, almost uniformly refuse to condemn the racism of their fellow citizens, fellow churchgoers, neighbors or family.

 

Your town is filled with people who never expressed any concern about this case until it brought them, and you, bad publicity. Some white folks now are saying that those attempted murder charges were extreme, but where were they a year ago? Nowhere to be seen or heard from, Mr. Mayor, that’s where. Mychal Bell and the other five could have rotted in jail for the rest of their lives for all you could have cared, and so long as the media never made mention of it, everything would have been fine.

 

Thus the lesson for today, Mayor McMillin, and please make note of it: complicity has a cost.

 

And here’s the sad irony embedded within that lesson – one which you and your compatriots utterly fail to recognize, and which whites have failed to understand going back to the days of slavery, when most whites didn’t own slaves, but also never spoke out against or challenged those who did: namely, that all of this could have been avoided. You and yours could have prevented it. You could have made it all go away: the angry denunciations, the demonstrators, the Reverends Sharpton and Jackson, the T-Shirts reading, "Free the Jena Six," Mellencamp – all of it.

 

If you had only taken racism seriously from the beginning, none of your current embarrassment would have been made necessary. Had you stood up as whites, after those nooses were hung at the high school – had you stood up and said "We as whites are offended by this act of racial intimidation" – and called for the expulsion of the students, your town could have remained an obscure outpost, familiar to no one beyond central Louisiana.

 

Had you stood up to the school board – had you demanded that black students be allowed to speak at a board meeting in September, after that body refused to let them raise concerns about racial tensions at the school, because, in the mind of the white-dominated board the noose incident had been "adequately resolved" – then perhaps the issues in Jena could have been addressed, productive dialogue furthered, and you would have been able to avoid the public spotlight altogether.

 

Had you stood up in December of last year when that white man beat up a black student outside a party, breaking a bottle over his head, only to receive probation – had you stood up and demanded that the assault be treated like the serious crime it was – perhaps you could have remained anonymous to the rest of the world forever.

 

Had you stood up when a white student pulled a gun on black students outside a convenience store the next day and yet wasn’t charged (while the black kids who got the gun away from him were charged with stealing the white kid’s firearm) – had you stood up and demanded that the charges be dropped and perhaps that kids shouldn’t ride around with guns in their pickup trucks – none of this would have happened.

 

And had you risen up in opposition to your D.A. buddy when he charged those six young black men with attempted murder, claiming with a straight face that their tennis shoes were a deadly weapon – had you risen up and said, these charges are ridiculous, and had you sought to recall him perhaps – I assure you, Jena would have never come to the attention of anyone. And if it did, it would only have been to praise it, for having so many whites willing to stand in solidarity with their black neighbors, and demand equity and justice for all.

 

But you did none of this. You did nothing even remotely like it. Good Germans never do. They remain silent in the face of such things and then complain when others give them a hard time about it.

 

There is a cost to pay for your silence, Mayor McMillin. A cost that grows in direct proportion to the degree of your complicity. It has always been so. Had whites stood up and demanded better of our own, of ourselves, beginning centuries ago, so much about this nation’s history could have been different. Had more whites chosen to be allies to black and brown folks, joining them in resistance to oppression and domination, all the anxiety we feel now – the fear of being called racist, or thought of as such by folks of color – could have been mitigated.

 

That tradition, the tradition of resistance, is there Mr. Mayor, for the joining. It has always been there. And the fact that you know nothing of it – that none of the whites in Jena likely do – merely suggests the glaring failures of the American educational system, which has spent years teaching us even the smallest, most insignificant detail of our history (so long as it serves to boost the patriotic mood) but which has told us next to nothing about white antiracism through history. No wonder whites in Jena feel under siege. You don’t even realize that the fight of those 20,000 people who visited your town is your fight too. It is a fight for human liberty and justice, and one in which whites have joined with folks of color for generations. Not enough of us, to be sure, but some just the same. What’s more, it is a fight to break out of the boxes in which we as whites have been placed by our own collaboration – it’s a chance to say that we will not be defined and have our humanity limited by the weight of history and the fear of forging a new path.

 

You could choose to be a part of that fight. Your entire town could. If it does, you will be welcomed to the struggle, I assure you. But if you don’t, if you choose instead to remain on the side of white denial and silence and obduracy, then please know, you will pay a price. You will not escape judgment, And you will have to get used to many an article, many a speech, and many an unflattering reference in the songs of artists, all condemning your community to a special place in hell, whether viewed in literal or metaphorical terms.

 

And your protestations of innocence will fall like raindrops in the Seattle autumn: so common as to not even be noticed or justify so much as a moment’s consideration.

 

Here’s hoping that you make the right choice.

 

 

Tim Wise is an antiracist essayist, activist and educator. He is the author of White Like Me: Reflections on Race from a Privileged Son, and can be reached through his website at www.timwise.org, or at

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