Imagine the following scene: at a public high school the black students sit by the bleachers while the white students sit under a tree. One of the black students wanting some shade under the tree asks the principal for permission to sit there. After receiving permission, the student returns to school the next day to find nooses swaying from the tree.
While this may seem like a scene out of the Jim Crow era in the South – a period marred by the brainless “separate but equal” mentality – this unfortunately did not happen back in the 1960s, but less than a year ago in Jena, La.
When it was discovered that three white students were behind the acts, rather than facing expulsion as one would expect, the students received three days of in-school suspension for the “pranks,” as the school superintendent referred to the incident. The decision sparked racial tensions that only grew as other incidents were reported of black students not being allowed into a white party.
The racial stresses ultimately led to a fight between a white student and six black students ultimately dubbed the “Jena Six.” The white student was left unconscious. Five of the six were charged with assault that later was increased to attempted second-degree murder by the District Attorney, sparking further outrage.
Yes, the Jim Crow laws are long gone, but how much progress has been made if black students feel as if they are not allowed to sit under the “white tree?” Sure there is no sign anymore that specifies “Whites Only,” but what has changed if kids cannot get into a party simply because of the color of their skin?
Clearly we cannot grow complacent with the current conditions. All GW students, regardless of race, should be disgusted with the events that occurred in Jena. It is good to see that students have already begun taking action by wearing black and protesting last week in support of the Jena Six. However, there is much more that needs to be done to address the race relations in our country today. The essential question remains: why are such incidents continuing to happen in the 21st century?
Maybe we need to look at how much progress the county has actually made since the civil rights movement. Certainly the country has prided itself on becoming more diverse in the 21st century. You don’t have to go far before you hear the phrase “cultural melting pot” and see how many corporations and universities brag about how their employees and student bodies come from x-number of racial backgrounds or x-number of different countries.
Growing up in northern New Jersey, a very “diverse” region of the U.S., I frequently encountered other students of a different race. Looking around my high school cafeteria though, I would always see the black, Hispanic and Asian kids sitting with their respective groups. Does this sound familiar to anyone else? For four years those tables stayed the same, and with a number of exceptions, white students really did not sit at those tables the same way the minorities did not sit elsewhere. From a purely statistical standpoint my school certainly qualified to be diverse, but having an assorted student body that does not interact with each is not diversity.
For whites, the challenge continues to be removing prejudices and stereotypes about other races. Minorities however have a clearly understated, but equally important role in racial relations today: to prevent self-segregation. For persons who don’t carry prejudices, minorities would be doing themselves a disservice by closing themselves off from other interesting and potentially helpful people.
Jena Six presents an opportunity for us to cross some of the invisible boundaries present on our campus. Several cultural organizations exist on our campus that are open to all GW students, yet the word “all” seems to translate to all members of that particular cultural group. Spending four years here and not taking the time to explore cultural organizations outside each of our comfort zones would be as unfortunate as ignoring all the unique internship opportunities D.C. offers. This is a two-way street, and the cultural organizations here at GW should be receptive to those individuals bold enough to leave their comfort zones.
The writer is a senior majoring in finance.