'Prevalent evil' of racism requires our response


By Erin Hawkins
UMNS Commentary

Staff members of the United Methodist Commission on Religion and Race join other United Methodists and people of faith in calling for equal justice and healing from the racial crisis in Jena, La., where six African-American teenagers face charges for allegedly beating a white youth at school. And yet, we know that both justice and healing will be hard to come by. 

As tens of thousands of protesters marched on Sept. 20 in Jena and elsewhere around the nation, we were encouraged by the outpouring of public response. Many wore black to signify the racial injustices black people too often suffer in communities, courtrooms and correctional institutions across this land. Their protests, some have said, could spark a new, 21st century, media-savvy, civil rights movement to challenge widespread unfairness in the U.S. judicial system.  

There have been several alarming racial incidents and inequities reported in this local controversy, born of years of separation and enmity between black and white students. About a year ago, a black student asked to sit under a tree on campus where only whites usually gathered. The next morning three white students had hung nooses from the tree, sending a message that recalled the painful history of lynching, when black people were hung from trees, mutilated and set afire to humiliate and intimidate the black community. The three boys received three days of in-school suspension for committing what one administrator called “an adolescent prank.”   

When black students protested, the annoyed white district attorney reportedly warned them, “I can take away your lives with a stroke of my pen.” A series of violent incidents followed months later:
• Arson that severely damaged the school
• An attack on a black student who tried to attend an all-white party
• A confrontation between a white man who brandished a shotgun and several black students who took his weapon and were later arrested and charged with theft
• And finally the assault on a white student who reportedly taunted his attackers and suffered a concussion, but was treated and released from the hospital a few hours later. His alleged attackers are the six black youths now facing trials for aggravated assault and conspiracy. 

The phenomenal attention and response to this crisis in a tiny sawmill town of fewer than 3,000 people, 350 of them African American, proves many activists are heeding Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s admonition that, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Perhaps they are mindful, too, of Jesus’ call to visit and demand justice for even “the least of these,” including those who are in prison. 

We know that racism is still a prevalent evil in communities, schools, workplaces, institutions and yes, even churches, throughout the United States. Its often conspiratorial perversions are usually subtle, even hidden. But when they are as flagrant as the injustice faced by these black students in Jena, we are compelled to respond en masse in nonviolent protest, information-sharing, coalition-building, public and private lobbying, petitions, letter-writing, voter registration, and continuous use of the most potent response to evil there is: individual and collective prayer that invokes our God to give us that which we too often fail to give each other: justice and mercy. 

We know that everyone who violated laws and harmed others in these incidents should face justice, but it should be equal justice that punishes violence and intimidation with equal severity. Those who dismiss the hanging of nooses as a mere prank or don’t understand the still lingering horror and pain of that heinous symbol help perpetuate the insensitivity and lack of compassion that often fuels schisms between races and ethnic groups. 

We are encouraged that Louisiana Area Bishop William Hutchinson has met with religious leaders in Jena, and that the Rev. Lyndle Bullard, pastor of predominantly white Nolley Memorial United Methodist Church there, is reportedly involved in efforts to bring compassion and healing to the divisive situation. We’re also appreciative that the Rev. Darlene Moore, pastor of Camphor United Methodist Church in Baton Rouge, took Louisiana State University students with her to the Jena rally. 

It is important that young people of all races are paying attention and responding to this controversy. Many of them have experienced racism, violence, threats and unfair punishment from authorities. Some can relate to what has happened to their peers in Jena. Some fear it could happen to them. 

I grieve for the white youth who was beaten unconscious and probably scarred emotionally by that incident. I grieve no less for the blind racial hatred he and others suffer from and the expression of that hatred which may have provoked the attack on him. I grieve also for those black young men - and so many others like them - whose outbursts of anger and hatred are roiled by the constant racism they must endure and whose fragile lives now hang upon the unbalanced scales of a flawed judicial system like so many nooses hanging from a fruitless tree. 

As the marchers return to their homes, campuses, jobs and communities, we as a church must remain concerned and watchful of what happens from here on, not only in Jena but across this hurting nation. We must be watchful and prayerful that God will look upon our conflict-ridden lives and relationships with grace and will call us to engage in more concerted, faithful actions like those of the Sept. 20 protests, so that together we might witness the miracles of justice, peace and healing we so desperately seek. 

Hawkins is the top staff executive of the United Methodist Commission on Religion and Race.