Clip from a Democracy Now broadcast with MLK’s Mountaintop Speech from Memphis on April 3, 1968.

This is the end of a long week.  And the end of Constitution Week.  And the day after a huge march in a little town called Jena in Lousiana.  In a week where it has felt like we were all treading water, a whole host of folks — reports are between 10,000 and 25,000 last I heard — showed up, stood up, and spoke up.  Good on every single one of them for asking the questions that needed to be asked, including why a juvenile is still being held in jail after his sentence was vacated on appeal.

At the conference on Race, Inquality, Poverty and the Media with the Eisenhower Foundation last winter, a question was posed to me about racial disparities in sentencing and charging decisions.  I have to admit, it was a tough one for me to field, because I grew up in and still live in West Virginia, where racial diversity is not exactly a huge issue — not so much because we are perfect at it, but because we have a very small population of color by comparison to a lot of surrounding states. 

After the conference, though, I noticed this idiot who started driving around my hometown with a huge confederate flag streaming off the bed of his truck on a sort of make-shift flagpole…and suddenly, the smallness of the population of people of color in my town didn’t seem like a good comparison point when clearly ignoramuses come in all forms — and pretty much everywhere.   (Just saw this goober the other day, again, and he still had a flag streaming out of the back of his truck.  He’s allowed, it certainly is his right to display it, but…nothing like advertising yer redneck status for all the world to see.  Classy.)

Since the conference, I have spent some time looking into the issue to educate myself on what so many others have to deal with on a day in/day out basis, and I wanted to bring you just a tiny window into an enormous set of issues that need a whole lot more sunlight.  Seemed like a fitting end to Constitution Week to me — bringing a little more sunlight into issues that far too often get swept back under the rug by too many folks.

— Eugene Robinson has an op-ed in the WaPo today addressing the Jena6 issue, but his last point is one that is broader and worth some extended discussion as well:

…Why is this interesting? Because black America is increasingly complicated and diverse, riven by fault lines that didn’t exist back when the great civil rights heroes were marching in Selma. We’re not forced by law to live in the same neighborhoods or to go to the same schools anymore. A generation has reached adulthood without ever experiencing the in-your-face racism of the Jim Crow era. There are black families that have had multigenerational middle-class success, and black families trapped in multigenerational poverty and dysfunction.

Black radio is one of the places where all the varied segments of black America still come together. It’s a true community medium, even if what we still call “the black community” is, for most purposes, best thought of as plural.

But yesterday’s protest needed more than the right medium, it needed the right message. When a local prosecutor in a small Southern town is confronted with a racial clash and he gives the whites a slap on the wrist while trying his best to send the blacks to prison, there aren’t many black Americans who feel they can enjoy the luxury of indifference.

We don’t see that many instances of overt, unapologetic, separate-and-unequal racial discrimination these days, thank goodness. Let’s hope we never see another. Because when something like Jena happens, we’re reminded, as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote in his letter from the Birmingham jail, that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” And we’re reminded that however diverse we are, to some people we all look alike.

— There have been a lot — and I mean a LOT — of repugnant noose provocations and instances lately.  A recent one at the University of Maryland, hung in front of the black student union, came up during the broadcast of the WVU/Maryland game, and local coverage of the incident has been more of a disbelief and disgust tone.  But I found this opinion piece in the BaltSun useful for some historical context, and thought you all might as well. 

— I can recall seeing the story of a young man, Marcus Dixon, on a Real Sports show back in 2003 or so.  Tried to find a clip of the show, but came up empty, but I did find some background on the piece here for everyone.  it was a statutory rape case wherein two high school students, one a black male aged 18 and one a white female aged 15 had sex, got caught at it, and lived in a state where consent issues and the slight age differential did not make a difference to the prosecutor charging the case.  (See here for more on what that means.)  Dixon was tried and sentenced to 10 years in jail — and his case was one that was tragic and symbolic on so many levels of what can go wrong when discretion is abused in the justice system for all the wrong reasons.  And this is just a single case in a sea of questions on this one issue.

The Sentencing Project has been looking at a lot of the issues surrounding guidelines disparity for federal criminal cases.  The information that can be found on their website is both informative and, in a lot of cases, incredibly depressing on a lot of levels.

More than 60% of the people in prison are now racial and ethnic minorities. For Black males in their twenties, 1 in every 8 is in prison or jail on any given day. These trends have been intensified by the disproportionate impact of the “war on drugs,” in which three-fourths of all persons in prison for drug offenses are people of color.

Jeralyn has been digging into this issue for a while — and has had to deal with it in her defense practice for clients, I am sure — but we are still talking about this, without there being a resolution to the problems inherent in the unequal treatment says a lot about how far we all still have to go.

Like I said, this is just a tiny window into this — there are so many more issues and instances.  But it’s a good place to start on a whole lot more discussion that we need to have.  And, during Constitution Week, I thought it was a good time to contemplate what the words “equal justice” ought to mean to all of us.

PS — Color of Change has a petition to Gov. Blanco and the local DA regarding the Jena6.  Thought some folks might be interested in it.

Christy Hardin Smith

Christy Hardin Smith

Christy is a "recovering" attorney, who earned her undergraduate degree at Smith College, in American Studies and Government, concentrating in American Foreign Policy. She then went on to graduate studies at the University of Pennsylvania in the field of political science and international relations/security studies, before attending law school at the College of Law at West Virginia University, where she was Associate Editor of the Law Review. Christy was a partner in her own firm for several years, where she practiced in a number of areas including criminal defense, child abuse and neglect representation, domestic law, civil litigation, and she was an attorney for a small municipality, before switching hats to become a state prosecutor. Christy has extensive trial experience, and has worked for years both in and out of the court system to improve the lives of at risk children.

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