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The Jena Dodge By: Heather Mac Donald
City Journal | Tuesday, September 25, 2007


Let’s assume the worst about Jena, Louisiana, and the charges of attempted murder brought against five black youths for beating a white student unconscious last December: that the district attorney’s indictments were motivated by rank racism, and that the racial tensions in this town of 3,000 are exclusively the product of white animus against blacks. Does it follow that this latest object of frenzy on the media’s racism beat is emblematic of America’s judicial system or the state of race relations today?

That is certainly what the ever-expanding army of racial victimologists and their media enablers would have you believe. Since the Jena story became international news last week, the media, the advocates, and pandering politicians have erupted in an outpouring of seeming joy at the alleged proof—after so much diligent trolling for evidence—that America remains a racist country. Senator Hillary Clinton told the NAACP: “This case reminds us that the scales of justice are seriously out of balance when it comes to charging, sentencing, and punishing African Americans.” Senator Christopher Dodd declared that Jena reveals that “de facto segregation”—in the spirit of Jim Crow—“is still very real” in many parts of America. Britain’s Observer announced that Jena shows “how lightly sleep the demons of racial prejudice in America’s deep south.” The New York Times has designated Jena “a high profile arena in the debate on racial bias in the judicial system”—a debate that perhaps not everyone was aware that we were having. J. Richard Cohen, president of the Southern Poverty Law Center, said: “I think a lot of people recognize that the criminal justice system grinds down people of color every day. Oftentimes, it’s nameless, it’s faceless. . . . People see Jena as the tip of the iceberg and ask: What lies beneath?” Needless to say, the Reverends Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton have vowed with Biblical thunder to avenge the Jena innocents and force America to own up to its mistreatment of blacks.

Unquestionably, the attempted murder charges (which were later dropped for four of the defendants, while a sixth assailant was booked as a juvenile) merit scrutiny. If the indictment in fact resulted from discrimination, then the prosecutor would deserve the strongest punishment—debarment at the very least. And the incident that seems to have led to the group assault on the white student—three students’ hanging of nooses from a school tree where white teens congregated—was a despicable provocation. If adults in Jena condoned such incendiary behavior, then these grown-up enablers truly are throwbacks to a vicious American past, and all citizens should revile them. There is evidence, however, that such adolescent cruelty is not official policy. The school principal told a black student who had inquired about the segregated tree that he could sit there or anywhere else he pleased.

But even if the worst possible interpretation of these events is merited, the massive international attention to this tiny town would seem vastly disproportionate to the cause, unless Jena stands for a more widespread problem. The idea behind the protests and the politicians’ exploitation of them is that just as these five youths were overcharged, the hundreds of thousands of blacks in prison are also the victims of systemic abuse. But for institutional racism, the black prison population would be much smaller.

This is an old complaint, for which no proof has ever been offered, Hillary Clinton’s irresponsible statement notwithstanding. The usual evidence in support of the charge that the criminal laws discriminate against blacks is the far stiffer sentences for selling and possessing crack cocaine compared with powdered cocaine. But that colorblind sentencing regimen, which dates from 1986, was a heartfelt effort to protect the overwhelmingly black victims of crack, not to penalize them. Black liberals such as Congressman Charles Rangel were loudest in sounding the alarm about the effects of crack in the black ghetto. Not even the most deluded racial apologists have ever explicitly suggested that racial bias motivated Congress’s efforts to combat a drug that results in much higher rates of violence among dealers and users, quicker and more onerous addiction, and more emergency room visits than its powdered cousin.

The reason that the black incarceration rate is the highest in the country is that blacks have the highest crime rate—by a long shot. Don’t trust the police, prosecutors, or judges to give a fair picture of black crime? Then go where the bodies are. Los Angeles is representative. In the first seven months of 2007, blacks in Los Angeles were murdered at a rate ten times that of whites and Asians. Who’s killing them? It’s not whites and Asians. While a minor proportion of the assailants of blacks are Hispanic, the vast majority are black themselves. Nationally, blacks commit murder at about eight times the frequency of whites. In New York, any given violent crime is 13 times more likely to have been committed by a black person than by a white person, according to the reports of victims and witnesses. Though they are only 24 percent of the city’s population, blacks committed 68.5 percent of all murders, rapes, robberies, and assaults in New York last year. Whites, who make up 34.5 percent of New Yorkers, committed only 5.3 percent of violent crimes. These ratios are similar across the country. In Los Angeles, blacks committed 41 percent of all robberies in 2001, according to victims’ descriptions, though they constitute only 11 percent of the city’s population. Robbery victims identified whites, who make up 30 percent of the Los Angeles population, just 4 percent of the time.

When attacking the justice system, racial agitators work mightily to change the subject from violence to drugs, using their flimsy argument that crack cocaine penalties are too high. But the vast preponderance of prisoners are in the pen for violence and property crime. In 2003, 52 percent of inmates in state prisons were serving time for violent offenses, 21 percent for property offenses, and only 20 percent for drug offenses. To be sure, black incarceration rates are off the charts. Black men were 41 percent of the more than 2 million men in federal, state, and local prisons at midyear 2006. At the end of 2005, there were 3,145 prison inmates per 100,000 black males in the United States, compared with 1,244 inmates per 100,000 Hispanic males and 471 inmates per 100,000 white males. Is that because violent and property crime is overpenalized, as race advocates sometimes argue? No. Despite the advocates’ constant complaints about three-strikes laws, the criminal justice system actually underpenalizes crime because of inadequate prison space. Prosecutors cut deals to lessen sentences; sheriffs overseeing local jails regularly devise new schemes for dumping offenders back on the street to make room for the next batch. And in any case, even if penalties for particular offenses were too draconian, the punishments affect all offenders the same.

No one in the Jena stampede dares whisper a word about black crime, because it undercuts the portrait of a victimized race. You can listen to every protest across the country glorifying the “Jena Six” and you will never hear an acknowledgement of the massive social breakdown that is the black crime rate: no mention of the violence in inner-city schools that black students commit overwhelmingly; no mention of the rising homicides in midsize cities that young black males commit when they feel “disrespected.” It is not racism that is putting black men in jail; it’s their own behavior.

What about the broader significance of Jena? Again, assuming for the sake of argument that this minuscule Louisiana town seethes with the crudest bigotry, held uniquely by whites against integration-seeking blacks, is Jena’s supposed state of affairs a microcosm of America? To the contrary: there is not a single elite institution in the country that is not twisting itself into knots in favor of African-Americans. Every minimally selective college is desperately seeking to enroll more black students. Boosting black enrollment requires drastically lowering a college’s admissions criteria to overcome the intractable 200-point SAT gap between black and white high school students, but every college institutes such double standards for the sake of “diversity.” Any black student who graduates from high school with decent grades and respectable SATs will leapfrog over thousands of more qualified white and Asian students right into the Ivy League. Blacks are also the hottest commodity for exclusive private schools that serve as training grounds for the Ivies. Andover, Exeter, Choate, and every other fancy prep and day school practice the same double standards in their eagerness to admit African-American students. After college, law schools, business schools, medical schools, engineering schools, and others accept black students whose test scores would disqualify them if they were white or Asian.

The preferences continue into the professions. Wall Street law firms annually flagellate themselves over their lack of proportional representation of black associates and partners, even though the number of blacks who graduate from law school with grades and bar-exam scores comparable with the firms’ white hires is negligible. The lack of comparably qualified black candidates does not stop the law partnerships from hiring black associates, though. Corporations have saddled themselves with massive “diversity” bureaucracies whose only function is to justify hiring and promoting less qualified African-Americans and Hispanics. Newspapers, TV stations, and advertisers put enormous pressure on themselves to have blacks on their staffs and to show black faces to the world.

In short, the opportunities for blacks to roar ahead in the economy if they stay out of trouble, study, and apply themselves are legion, but the numbers taking advantage of these opportunities are not. California’s state superintendent of public instruction broke a longstanding taboo this August by pointing out that middle-class black students in the state score worse on math and English than poor white and Asian students—a disparity that applies across the country. The usual poverty excuse for black underachievement does not hold up.

The Jena protesters will go home in denial of these truths. In fact, the purpose of such mass celebrations—and that is indeed what they are—is to make sure that attention stays far away from the actual problems holding blacks back. Astronomical rates of black criminality are not the only topic that the Jena rallies have obscured. No one wallowing in Jena promotion has had the courage to speak about an even more important crisis, the breakdown of marriage. The nearly 70 percent national illegitimacy rate for blacks—a number that can approach 90 percent in inner cities—is a cataclysm. Its consequences go far beyond the harm to individual black children—especially boys—who grow up without fathers. The real poison of the marriage crisis is the message it sends to young men about personal responsibility. The first duty in civil society is toward one’s own children; everything else is built around it. But when boys are raised without any expectations that they will have to support their children and marry the mother of those children, they fail to learn the most basic lesson about responsibility. They also are freed from the civilizing force of the marriage requirement, which pressures young men to become attractive mates. With enough support, individuals can overcome the moral perils of the illegitimacy culture, but given the prevalence of black crime and disaffiliation from the working world, it’s clear that not enough young men are finding ways to do so.

The race industry will try to keep Jena in the media and political spotlight for as long as possible, and to reinforce the notion that this episode exemplifies blacks’ situation in America. But if there were many other instances of (arguable) overcharging for black crime, we would have heard about them by now. The orgy of Jena coverage will not just fail to improve the lagging performance of blacks; it will impede such improvement by strengthening the victim mentality. Both whites and blacks are complicit in this sabotage. These ecstatic festivals of racism-bashing are a crippling ritual in the codependency between absolution-seeking whites and angry blacks, a phenomenon that Shelby Steele has powerfully analyzed. The demonstrators exhibit a palpable desire for the moral clarity of the civil rights era, as do the reporters, who have covered their every utterance. “This is the first time something like this has happened for our generation,” one student told the New York Times. “You always heard about it from history books and relatives. This is a chance to experience it for ourselves.”

He’s right; there has been nothing like Selma or Montgomery for the current generation, because much of America has accomplished almost an about-face on race since the 1950s. The current martyrs to American bigotry are a far cry from Rosa Parks. Like the “Jena Six,” they tend to have committed acts of violence or other crimes for which they are allegedly being excessively punished. Think of the six high school hooligans from Decatur, Illinois, whom Jesse Jackson tried to beatify in 1999 when their schools expelled them for a violent stadium fight; their backgrounds included robbery, trespassing, truancy, and failing whole school years. We are only belatedly learning that Mychal Bell, the sole member of the “Jena Six” to have been prosecuted for knocking out and kicking Justin Barker, has a previous arrest record that includes battery and property damage. Barker’s injuries led to $14,000 in medical bills, according to a lawyer.

The Jena situation is undoubtedly a bit more complex than the tale that the press has woven of hate-filled whites and peace-loving blacks. But even if it were not, the catharsis that this morality play has offered to its participants is spurious. The real tragedy is the dysfunctional culture that holds back too many blacks from seizing the many opportunities open to them.


Heather Mac Donald is a contributing editor of City Journal and the John M. Olin Fellow at the Manhattan Institute. Her latest book, coauthored with Victor Davis Hanson and Steven Malanga, is The Immigration Solution.


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