A Nation of Jenas

Seven guards, one nurse, and a 14-year-old boy in a Florida juvenile detention center. In a trial last fall, video evidence showed the guards beating the boy and forcing him to inhale ammonia as the nurse stood idly by; the boy died the following day. An all-white jury took just 90 minutes to conclude that no crime had been committed—not manslaughter, not even child neglect. They decided the death of Martin Lee Anderson was caused by a combination of an undiagnosed sickle-cell trait and physical stress. The stress was ruled to come not from excessive force, but from a business-as-usual drill to get an uncooperative youth to comply with authority.

Three nooses on school property, one schoolyard fight, and six black boys charged with attempted murder in Jena, Louisiana, last winter—and now we are at the forefront of the “new civil rights movement,” according to the news media. Really? As a young black woman, I struggle to see what is “new” about racial injustice within our legal system. Anderson’s death and the circumstances surrounding his trial bear an uncanny resemblance to the death of another 14-year-old American boy half a century ago. Remember Emmett Till?

So I stood on the U.S. Capitol lawn in September at a Jena Six protest—surrounded by thousands of black people asking, “Why is the criminal justice system our closest tie to the government?” and “Why aren’t the nation’s procedures for rehabilitation as strong as those for punishment?”

The Jena Six protests are not so much the start of a new movement as they are the next phase of an ongoing painful struggle for equitable treatment and opportunity. If anything, Jena is another example of the underlying tension in how our society dances around the “problem of the color line” as it relates to our democracy.

It is difficult to wrap one’s consciousness around how such overtly discriminatory acts find their way into today’s world. To take an active part in the struggle against injustice, each of us must be honest with ourselves and recognize that for many people of color the reality of America and the hope of America’s promises do not look the same.

In reality, we are a nation of Jenas. Our nation was built on the free labor of stolen people, while the rhetoric of “liberty and justice for all” has perpetuated the illusion that America is the land where anything is possible for anyone, where hope in the “A­meri­­can Dream” leads to blind faith that justice will prevail.

There has been no period in American history that justifies this kind of faith. The only way to move forward is to internalize God’s Word by any means necessary: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). The message is simple—we are all one people in God, but we will remain a nation of Jenas until we give the Word, rather than cultural mores and assumptions, the power to mold our worldviews.

Not only will we have to think differently, we will have to live differently. Instead of just lamenting racism alongside people of color, privileged people must be accountable to the pivotal role they have in struggle. To use a biblical metaphor: The privileged must take onto their shoulders the yoke of the oppressed and connect their plight with those in power. Martin Luther King Jr. reminded us that individuals are always more moral than are the masses, meaning that individual transformations are not sufficient. We need to carry our crosses into the public and political spheres so that “business as usual” will not be tolerated.

This will not be easy; as people of faith, we must fight constantly against doubt, fear, and the temptation to be complacent. If each one of us does this, the institutions of this world do not stand a chance against a truly free, blessed, and committed people.

Alexis Vaughan is an editorial assistant at Sojourners.

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