About the so-called Jena Six, reasonable people can disagree about whether or not prosecutors initially charged the Jena, La., defendants too harshly. The black teenage defendants stand accused of beating a white teenager unconscious.
Authorities, at first, charged five of the six with attempted murder, although now none of them faces attempted murder charges. Supporters of the Jena Six claim that whites hung nooses on a tree, thus provoking a series of interracial clashes.
Revs. Sharpton and Jackson claim that harsh treatment of the Jena Six serves as a metaphor for the continued unequal justice for blacks in America. Really?
Jackson, speaking in Jena, claimed that more blacks sit in jail than in college. Irrelevant as to the issue at hand, and false.
According to the 2000 census, there were over 2.2 million blacks in college. By mid-year 2006, according to the Justice Department, 905,600 blacks were in state or federal prisons and local jails. Even if Jackson meant black men, his assertion is still debatable. The Justice Policy Institute found that at the time of the 2000 census, 603,000 black men were in college, while 791,000 were in jail. Yet only 179,000 of incarcerated blacks were between 18 and 24 years old, the customary "college age."
Jackson, in Jena, cited the unequal treatment in prosecuting crack versus powder drug violations as evidence of racial discrimination. This calls for an explanation. Crack violators, the ones subject to the harshest punishment, are often black. But members of the Black Congressional Caucus, in the '80s, pushed for stiff sentences against those peddling crack, given the violence mostly in urban areas associated with it. Nearly half of the members of the Black Congressional Caucus voted for the 1986 anti-drug bill, which provided stiff sentences for crack. The federal Sentencing Commission, during the Clinton administration, recommended equalizing the penalty for crack and powder. Clinton signed legislation to block the recommendations.
Jackson and Sharpton suggest that the disproportionate number of blacks under the criminal justice system stems from racism.
But black defendants are more likely to be acquitted than white defendants. A study in the '90s found blacks convicted less frequently than whites in all but two of 14 categories of felony crimes, including murder, rape, burglary, felony theft, drug trafficking and other crimes against people. The only two types of felonies where blacks were not convicted at a lower rate than whites were felony traffic offenses and miscellaneous felonies. Cases that went to juries (only 2.8 percent of those examined) had a similar pattern, although juries convicted blacks more than whites for robbery, assault and property offenses.
What about the assertion that a black defendant, with the same record, is likely to serve more time than a white defendant? Many legal experts blame the results on economics white defendants are more likely to hire a private counselor who can get them a better deal in the courtroom. Other factors that can sway judges include family support, job security and the ability to make bail with white defendants more likely than blacks to fit this description. And black judges are more likely than white judges to give black defendants harsher sentences than white defendants.
What about DWB, Driving While Black? Many big-city police departments now record stops by race. But the compiled information tells you nothing about why police stop drivers. George Mason University professor Matthew Zingraff, who studied racial profiling, says, "Why a police officer makes a stop of an individual, we'll never know that. We'll never know the number of people who have not been stopped. It doesn't tell us motivation. It doesn't tell us what caught the police officer's eye."
Supporters of the Jena Six say their actions were sparked by the "hate crime" of the hanging of three later reported as two nooses on a high school campus tree. This, activists say, shows a prevalence of hate crimes against blacks in America. But economist Walter Williams notes that when hate crime statistics are adjusted for blacks' lower population numbers, proportionally, blacks commit more than twice as many hate crimes as whites.
Rev. Sharpton calls Jena the "Selma of its day." Let's revisit. In Selma, Ala., in 1965, 500 to 600 civil rights protesters tried to march in support of black voter registration. Local authorities attacked the marchers with whips and tear gas and billy clubs, leaving 17 people in the hospital.
For what it's worth, an Associated Press-AOL Black Voices survey asked blacks to name the "most important black leader." More blacks named "nobody" than anybody else. Jackson was named by 15 percent of respondents; 2 percent named Rev. Sharpton; and Louis Farrakhan, leader of the Nation of Islam, an organization also active in supporting the Jena 6, was named by 4 percent.
Maybe that's the real lesson of Jena.