In recent weeks, member after member of the mainstream media have expressed their shock—shock—to discover that racism still rules much of the Deep South. Having let the story simmer for roughly a year, our mainstream media has finally set its sights on Jena, Louisiana and the so-called “Jena 6.” Alas, even with the national attention, some media moguls still don’t have the sense to see what happened there.
The earliest use of the phrase “Jena 6,” according to LexisNexis, was a June 26, 2007 article in The Chicago Tribune—nearly 11 months after the controversy began in August 2006. Predictably enough, it took an online e-mail campaign and blogger activism to bring the story national attention. In the end, it was only protest rallies—organized in part by black-oriented radio shows—surrounding a federal court decision at the crux of the case that drew mainstream media attention.
A column like this one does not afford the space to address all of the complex details of the case—though The Jena Times provides a decent summary. The upshot is that racism and racist symbols were deployed to harass black students at a high school in Louisiana, ending in a conflict that spun out of control and ended with six young black men in jail and facing charges that led black residents and the NAACP to cry foul.
Now, in the wake of protests that brought thousands of people to Jena, we’re finally seeing some mainstream coverage. Some naturally see it as an opportunity for exploitation. Fox’s John Gibson, for instance, excoriated protestors on his radio show, saying, “What they’re worried about is a mirage of 1950s-style American segregation, racism from the South. They wanna fight the white devil. I—you know, there’s no—you can’t go fight the black devil. Black devils stalking their streets every night gunning down their own people—can’t go fight that.”
John Gibson’s shameful lack of concern for the facts of this situation saddens me personally, I have to admit, since I used to work with John at MSNBC and thought he was a decent, extremely likeable fellow. The fact that he chooses merely to exploit the racism of Fox’s audience demonstrates that the power of this attraction has hardly ended with the demise of legalized segregation. Of course at Fox, the combination of ignorance and/or malevolence hardly ends—or even begins—with Gibson.
Mort Kondracke opined on FOX News that national attention wasn’t needed for this issue, saying that, “[I]t looks as though the people of Jena can solve this on their own.” No doubt that is why the FBI is investigating the situation. And all this comes in the same week that Bill O’Reilly had dinner in Harlem with Al Sharpton and was surprised to find that there was no difference between a restaurant run and primarily patronized by blacks, noting, “There wasn’t one person in Sylvia’s who was screaming, ‘M-fer, I want more iced tea.’” Seriously? No, really.
Perhaps O’Reilly is just a jerk, rather than a conscious racist. Take look at this headline from The Chicago Tribune and you’ll understand: “White supremacist backlash builds over Jena case.” Reporter Howard Witt writes that a neo-Nazi website has posted the names, addresses, and phone numbers of some of the Jena 6, and even conducted a sympathetic interview with Jena’s mayor. Mark Potok, an expert from the Southern Poverty Law Center, is quoted saying that “There is a major white supremacist backlash building. I also think it’s more widespread than may be obvious to most people. It’s not only neo-nazis and Klansmen—you expect this kind of reaction from them.”
Paul Krugman of The New York Times writes to remind of us of the role that racism plays in conservatives’ “Southern Strategy,” beginning with Richard Nixon. And Bob Herbert notes in his New York Times column, “The Ugly Side of the GOP,” that a conservative minority filibustered a popular bill just this past week that would have allowed D.C. residents—a majority black—the right to vote. Again offering readers some valuable historical context, he recalls the interview with former Republican National Chairman Lee Atwater, who explained, “You start out in 1954 by saying, ‘Nigger, nigger, nigger.’ By 1968, you can’t say ‘nigger’—that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now [that] you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things, and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites.”
Ironically, we are having this discussion during the 50th Anniversary of the integration of Little Rock’s schools with some help from federal troops. (Can you imagine which side Fox would have been on in that controversy?) And yet despite the historic initiative in reversing centuries of oppression by whites of blacks symbolized by the Brown v. Board decision that inspired it, segregation has re-asserted itself across the country’s school systems, following housing patterns that do the same. Racism, of course, will always be with us. So too, alas, will be those in media who either ignore it or encourage it.
Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College, and a professor of journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. His blog, “Altercation,” appears at www.mediamatters.org/altercation, His seventh book, Why We’re Liberals: A Political Handbook for Post-Bush America, will appear early next year.
Research Assistance: Tim Fernholz