JENA AND ITS 'TREE OF IGNORANCE'

To the Teacher:
The controversy at Louisiana's Jena High School offers a teachable moment for students to examine America's racial issues. The student reading below presents an overview of the Jena events and comments by whites and blacks who live there. Suggested student activities include a microlab and subjects for further inquiry.

Teachers might also find it useful for students to read about and discuss recent Supreme Court rulings on school desegregation (see "Race, the 14th Amendment & Our Schools: The Supreme Court Rules" and "Affirmative Action and the Courts" on this website). "Teaching on Controversial Issues," also on this site, suggests a way of thinking about and teaching such issues.

 


Student Reading

Part One: Events in Jena

For 20 years an oak tree grew in the courtyard of Jena High School. It became known as the "white tree," a place for white kids to hang out.

At a school assembly on August 31, 2006, Kenneth Purvis, a black junior, asked Gawan Burgess, the assistant principal, whether blacks could sit under the white tree. "You know you can sit anywhere you want," Burgess replied. The next day Kenneth Purvis and his cousin Bryant stood under the tree.

The following morning two or three nooses (reports differ) hung from the oak. They were quickly cut down.

The nooses symbolized mob lynch killing, a practice that became common in the South between the last part of the 19th century and World War II. During that period, more than 250 people in Louisiana, most of them African-American, were lynched. ( New Yorker , 10/8/07)

Word spread of the appearance of the nooses. Some black students and parents complained about racial intimidation. School officials suspended for three days three white students who admitted to hanging the nooses. The U.S. attorney's office and the FBI investigated, but did not file "hate crime" charges. Civil rights groups protested.

In a meeting with high school students, District Attorney Reed Walters, flanked by police officers, said, "I can be your best friend or your worst enemy. I can make your lives disappear with a stroke of my pen." Black students, who were sitting together on one side of the auditorium, said he aimed this comment directly at them. Walters denied this, saying he spoke to all students, black and white. (Laura Flanders, www.commondreams.org, 9/26/07)

The nooses were gone, but not the feelings they had aroused in Jena (pronounced JEE-nuh), a rural town of 2,971, 230 miles northwest of New Orleans, Louisiana. The population is 85 percent white, 15 percent black.

In the following months, the high school experienced a fire caused by arson and some fights between blacks and whites, but it is not clear that they were related to the nooses on the tree.

On December 4, during lunch hour, six black students attacked Justin Barker, a white student, kicking and beating him unconscious. He was taken to a hospital, then released and later that evening attended a school event.

The six black students were arrested. Five were charged with attempted second-degree murder, a charge requiring the use of a deadly weapon. DA Walters argued that the sneakers used to kick Justin Barker were deadly weapons. These charges were later reduced. But in June 2007, one of the attackers, Mychal Bell, 16, who had a criminal record for battery and property damage, was convicted of aggravated second degree battery as an adult. This conviction could have jailed him for 15 years. However, a Louisiana appeals court ruled that he should have been tried as a juvenile and overturned it.

In the summer of 2007 school officials had the courtyard oak tree chopped down, saying it would be used as firewood. But the feelings aroused by the events the tree symbolized were far from gone.

On September 20, thousands of demonstrators came to Jena, marching to protest the discrepancy between the way the six black teenagers, particularly Mychal Bell, had been treated compared to the three white teenagers. One week later and after six months in jail, Bell was released on bail. He will now be tried as a juvenile.

 

Part Two: Comments by area residents

Blacks

Casa Compton: "Every year at Jena High School there's a black and white fight. It's always been tense. There's always been prejudice and bigotry here." (www.nytimes.com, 9/19/07

Latere Brown: "If you can figure out how to make a schoolyard fight into an attempted murder charge, I'm sure you can figure out how to make stringing nooses into a hate crime." (www.nytimes.com, 9/21/07)

Anthony Jackson, a teacher at Jena High School: "White students can do things and receive a slap on the hand." But authorities "want to throw the book at blacks." (www.npr.org, 7/30/07

Caseptia Bailey (Robert Bailey's mother): "It's always been about race in Jena. Once you're here, you learn to deal with what happens….It's just gotten to a point that people were ready to stand up and fight." (www.washingtonpost.com, 9/4/07)

Marcus Jones (father of Mychal Bell): "It felt like they were saying, 'We can do whatever we want to those n_____s.'" (www.msnbc.com/newsweek, 7/30/07)
 

Whites

Tina Norris, owner of a restaurant: "They make it sound like the whole town of Jena is just one big K.K.K. rally. It isn't. We don't have lots of problems here. This is just a small town."

P. A. Paul, a minister, called the nooses "kids' play." (www.nytimes.com, 9/19/07)

Ricky Coleman: "What bothers me is this town being labeled racist. I'm not a racist." (www.ap.org, 9/20/07)

Sheriff Carl Smith: "The media has spread it all over the United States that this is about race when it's not about race." (www.washingtonpost.com, 8/4/07)

Revered Brian Moran, pastor of Antioch Baptist Church: "It really confuses me why anybody would say this is not a racist situation." (www.npr.org, 9/7/07)

Ray Hodges, an automotive technology teacher at Jena High School, who planted the oak tree: "They have cast us as a bunch of ignorant, racist country bumpkins. It's about as far from the truth as you can get. There is racism in Jena, but it's not only in Jena, it's not only in Louisiana, it's not only in the South, it's an American thing." (www.gsels.ucla.edu/mclarenblog, quoting the Los Angeles Times , 9/21/07) "I watched that tree grow. It was planted as a tree of knowledge. But guess what it became? It became a tree of ignorance." (msn.com/newsweek, 8/20-27/07)

 


For discussion

1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?

2. How fairly were the black students treated, in your opinion? The white students? In each case, what makes you think so? How would you have punished them?

3. Compare and contrast the comments by whites and blacks in Jena on its racial situation. How do you explain the differences?

4. Paul Krugman wrote in the New York Times (9/24/07), "The reality is that things haven't changed nearly as much as people think. Racial tension, especially in the South, has never gone away.  And race remains one of the defining factors in modern American politics." What evidence do students have to support or to oppose Krugman's statements? What might they do to gather evidence supporting or countering Krugman's view?

5. Do you think that the school officials' decision to cut down the oak was a good one? If so, why? If not, why not?

6. If you were a school official in Jena, what would you do to address the problem?


A microlab

The subject of this suggested microlab is sensitive. Conducting it requires a classroom environment in which students respect one another, feel safe from attack and free to offer their views in a democratic spirit of give and take.

A microlab is a structured small group experience in which people deepen their understanding of an issue through speaking and listening. It isn't really a time for discussion or dialogue; instead, it's a time for each person to share her or his thoughts and feelings in response to questions. When a person is speaking, the rest of the group should listen only, without interrupting.

Divide students into groups of three or four. Some guidelines for participants: It's okay to pass if you need more time to think or would rather not respond. This is a timed activity. Each person will have about one minute to speak, and I will let you know when that time is up by say, "Time." Then the next person will speak. Please speak from your own experience and point of view. Share what you feel comfortable sharing. Ask for a volunteer from each group who is willing to speak first.

Some questions for the microlab:

1. How do you view the relations among people of different races and ethnicities in this school?

2. What have you observed about those relations that you regard as significant?

3. Do you think that the relations among races in this school reflect those in this community? Why?

4. Is racism, as Ray Hodges states, "an American thing"? Why or why not?

5. What might there be about racism and relations between whites and blacks that you would like to learn more about?

An assessment of the microlab

The first time you use the microlab, you might want to ask students the following:

  • How did this process work for you?
  • What did you notice about how you were listening?
  • Was the process challenging to you? How? Why?

Conduct a follow-up class discussion, giving students the opportunity to share views and for them to consider the possibility of follow-up study on racism.

 


For inquiry

The history of race relations in America goes back almost four centuries. It includes many vicious controversies and continues to raise many important questions. The Jena High School controversy offers an opportunity for students to inquire into such matters as the following:

  • Lynchings of blacks in 19th and 20th century America
     
  • The K.K.K. and other white supremacist groups
     
  • The 1954 Supreme Court desegregation decision and its results
     
  • A case study of Central High School, Little Rock, Arkansas then and now
     
  • Hurricane Katrina and its disproportionate effects on blacks
     
  • Recent Supreme Court decisions, notably on the University of Michigan's affirmative action programs and the Seattle and Louisville school desegregation programs
     
  • The South, once a stronghold for Democrats, is now a Republican stronghold. What explains this? Some people think this development is related to racism in the South. Do you agree?

The criminal justice system's treatment of blacks. Students might begin by considering the following:

"According to the Justice Department, blacks are almost three times as likely as whites to have their cars searched when they are pulled over and more than twice as likely to be arrested. They are more than five times as likely as whites to be sent to jail and are sentenced to 20 percent longer jail time." —Gary Younge, "Jena is America," The Nation, 10/8/07
"Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton and other leaders of the Jena demonstration who view events there, and the racial horror of our prisons, as solely the result of white racism are living not just in the past but in a state of denial." —Orlando Paterson, "Jena, O. J. and the Jailing of Black America," New York Times , 9/30/07

 

This lesson was written for TeachableMoment.Org, a project ofMorningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. We welcome your comments. Please email them to: lmcclure@morningsidecenter.org