The residents of Jasper, Texas, have been in the unrelenting glare of the media spotlight since the horrible incident there last year. It was an event that seemed more appropriate for pre-civil rights days when the Ku Klux Klan and impromptu lynchings were commonplace than today’s supposedly enlightened times. James Byrd Jr. was dragged to death behind a pickup truck by three white men out looking for a good time. Tuesday, the first of the three-man group to stand trial, 24-year-old John William King, was found guilty of committing this gruesome crime of depravity. Though justice is slowly being meted out, nothing can come close to justifying what King and his friends did to Byrd.
Jasper and its residents have been under a microscope since the trial began. News reports have cast the townspeople as full of the good ol’ boy attitudes that dominated in the Jim Crow days. Residents have gone to great lengths to prove to the world – and themselves – that they no longer share in the sin of racism. Perhaps something good can come of this tragedy: better relations between residents of different races in Jasper.
Recent weeks have been full of symbolic gestures in the Texas town – residents took down a 100-year-old fence in the local cemetery that separated the graves of blacks and whites and named a park after Byrd. But no matter how many symbolic actions are taken, the undercurrents of racism remain. Sadly, it often takes a terrible tragedy to spur dialogue and change. But it also takes more than purely symbolic actions to better the situation. It takes constant attention to the state of race relations. It takes open discussions of stereotypes, prejudices and those dark emotions most people try to bury deep inside.
Racism is alive and well in this country, and around the world. Though the days of Jim Crow and Klan lynchings exist only in history textbooks, racism has become more sophisticated and less overt. While the efforts of Jasper residents to foster unity are commendable, the symbolic gestures are just a starting point for racial discourse. We will not move forward as a nation until we realize that every single person harbors various prejudices. Until that day arrives, we will be forced to endure more stories that detail the incredible depths of human depravity.