Jena's Mayor is upset. He's irate, in fact, that his town has become what he calls “the epicenter of hatred, racism and a place where justice is denied.” To be fair, most of us writing about the Jena 6 have only made the last claim there, and it's pretty undeniable. One thing that I've consistently said on the matter is that the Jena situation is not limited to that town, or even to the South–racism is an ongoing and intractable problem in this nation, and this brief outburst of publicity probably isn't going to make a major change in that. Jena's not the epicenter of hatred and racism in this country–it's just the one that made the national stage.
He's also upset because people outside the African-American community are starting to make noise about it.
A video in which rapper-actor Mos Def asked students around the country to walk out Oct. 1 to support the “Jena Six” escaped comment by this town's mayor. But when John Mellencamp sang, “Jena, take your nooses down,” he took issue.
See, you can expect that kind of rabble-rousing from Mos Def, and if you're a member of the white community defending your own, you can even discount it as tribalism, but it's harder to do when it's a white guy from the heartland singing “Jena, take your nooses down.”
The racial problems in places like Jena aren't going to be addressed by interracial committees to study racial relations, and non-violent protests by minorities demanding that they be treated as equals will only do so much to sway those on the fence. But what can really make a difference, I think, is having whites–and the more high-profile whites the better–being unafraid to stand up and talk about racism to their own people. That's why, despite my initial discomfort about this story, I started writing about it. I had to take the chance that I'd say something stupid because white people will listen to their fellow whites in a way they won't listen to African-Americans. That's why the Jena Mayor is pissed off about this song and this video–as long as it was black people complaining, he could reasonably (in his mind, at least) claim that this wasn't about racism, that it was about justice. Not now–a white guy, and a rural white guy at that (Mellencamp, for all his celebrity, still spends a lot of time in rural Indiana) is calling them out, and doing so in a voice that will reach a lot of other whites who live in similar circumstances. That's a threat, and while Mayor McMillin's negative response may be driven by his subconscious, it's the idea that his fellow whites are turning on him that's prodding him.
White people have a responsibility to take this issue on. It's similar to the argument that men have a greater responsibility to stand up against rapists and rape apologists–if white people want to reduce racism to the point where it's an aberration, we, collectively, need to stop being racist. And the first step we need to take is to stop being afraid to talk about it, and for fuck's sake, stop being defensive and saying “I'm not a racist” when you get busted doing something racist.