Where Were All the White Folks at the Jena Rally?
By Veronica F. Adams
I'm White, European American, Caucasian—whatever you want to call my socially-constructed "racial identity." Because I am committed to help end the absurd oppression and scapegoating of my fellow Americans who don't look like me, I was obliged to answer the call put out by several of the major U.S. civil rights organizations to come to Jena, Louisiana if at all possible and stand in solidarity with people of color against the racial injustices perpetrated by the White community and institutions there. It took me two planes to get from the DC area to New Orleans, and then a five-hour bus ride to in the middle of the night to Jena, and although it cost me money that I don't have a lot of right now, I came, because I could.
That's one of my three main responsibilities as a white "anti-racist" ally (anti-racist means one who takes a stand against racist activities and systems; we are not personal bigotry cops as some new to the term may think it means).
But, what I am wondering is—Where were my fellow white allies? The Caucasian turn-out was nothing short of pitiful. Out of the varying attendance reports of 30,000 to 100,000 people who also overcame a range of challenges to attend, there was at best only 1 White out of every 100 people there—maybe as little as 1 in 150. I estimated that from repeated scanning, and then polling some of the other Whites and people of color there.
I was ashamed. Not only was I greatly disappointed that more of my fellow self-identified white anti-racist allies weren't there, but I was also embarrassed and pained that the people of color there were left, once again, to face down overt Jim Crow racism on their own. And how can we think we will ever build effective multi-racial coalitions on any of the urgent issues facing us today, when people of color can see that, once again, we are not there to watch their backs when we are needed.
Now, could the shameful white turnout be in part due to the fact that 17 year old Mychal Bell, [the first of the six black youth tried so far and facing a possible 22 years in prison] had a prior rap sheet? I listened to an editorial on public radio yesterday that pointed out that it was easy for Whites to rally around Rosa Parks who was hand-selected and trained for her role in history in large part due to the fact that she was uncontroversial—Married, a seamstress, no skeletons in her closet, no prior arrests, etc. The commentator contrasted Ms. Parks to a man like Rodney King who was so high on crack when several Los Angeles police nearly beat him to death—that would-be allies find it more difficult to care and confront such acts, when these are perpetrated on the likes of Mr. King.
So, is this why we Whites are not more outraged about the nooses hung from the Jena high school sanctioned "Whites Only" tree, and the slew of anti-Black incidents ensuing there, and the Jena's across this land of ""Justice for All"?—Because Mychal, after all, has been no angel? Well, to those for whom this is the case—Please consider this: The widespread perception among various peoples of color in this country is that we Whites are perpetually, albeit often unconsciously, patronizing. Is there perhaps some condescension at work here among those who may have chosen to judge Mychal and his friends over speaking out against the hate-filled and unjust actions of Whites in Jena?
As a white person concerned about ending systemic/institutionalized racism and xenophobia in my country, it is not my job to second guess the calls of the NAACP, the Color of Change, the Southern Poverty Law Center, the People's Institute for Survival & Beyond, and other nationally respected civil rights and anti-racism organizations.
As white anti-racist allies we say we're ready to take direction from people of color led organizations. The directives were put forth: please show up. And we didn't.
And, as was made clear to me by a few white citizens of Jena sitting outside a barbershop (one of the young women bragging that she was a law student) was that the lack of white presence at the rally "confirmed" for them that this protest was just the ridiculous acting out of uppity "N's" and the few "N-lovers" like me who were there. I care little about being called such names, but what these people didn't see and hear from us was that the majority of Americans of all racial identities find their ignorant, soulless bigotry as unacceptable, and that they need to repent their ways and join what is good about the human race. (Consider that most of them are likely allowed by their preachers to consider themselves, even now, to be "good Christians.")
And now the hate waves have been busy at work. The home addresses of these six Jena youth have been widely distributed among hate groups, along with the encouragement for these teens and their families to be "taken care of." The work of Whites is not to sit around and talk endlessly about our guilt about our privilege and raising our cultural awareness, though one of our tasks is to 1) Continue to do our own re-education and self-examination in the course of the rest of our lives. Where we are letting people of color down at this very moment is that we are not 2) Educating and correcting other Whites who are sorely in need of being confronted by us—other Whites, and 3) Following the lead of people of color regarding actions we can assist with.
These six young men and their families [and likely more] in Jena are in immanent danger—And what are we White allies doing about it? We certainly can't think that Jena's racist law enforcement system is going to go out of its way to protect them.
Please, get on the websites of some of the organizations involved and find out what you can do now to support these families in Jena. Request anti-hate group resource materials and start training yourselves on effective interventions and get to work confronting these prolific groups in your own communities. If your time is limited, postpone some of your racial diversity discussions for the time being—and be of service to the families in Jena and other people of color across the country who need our help now in getting these hate-filled Whites off their backs.
Written by Veronica F. Adams, M.Div., Charlottesville, Virginia. Veronica is a diversity and racial equity trainer, and is currently completing a book: Liberating the Souls of White Folks: A Primer.