At this point, there seems little doubt about the ugliness that has simmered, and then boiled, in a little town in Louisiana called Jena.
There is a lot that has already been said, and done, about the latent racism in the town that led to the display of nooses on a tree. Racism that led, in reaction, to six black youths brutally beating a young white man, and then the subsequent disproportionate sentencing, in which those black youths could have served prison time for trumped-up murder charges.
Action has been taken, and will be taken, so that those charges, and the penalties paid, get into line.
But I want to address another aspect of this sad incident, and that is the message that is being sent to black youth across this country. From what I see and read, it is the wrong message.
This is the message engendered by the observation of the Rev. Jesse Jackson that the "Jena 6" affair is a "defining moment, just like Selma was a defining moment." And the further calling out by Jackson of Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., for not, in his opinion, focusing adequately on this incident.
The point is that Jena is not a defining moment like Selma, and Obama, and his current campaign for the presidency, is a major point of proof.
Both Jackson and the Rev. Al Sharpton made their own runs for the presidency. Jackson gained traction among black voters. Sharpton could not even do that.
But Obama's run is real. He is a genuine candidate who thus far has raised more money than any other candidate, Democratic or Republican.
In a Gallup poll done earlier this year, 94 percent of respondents said they would vote for a black candidate for president.
This would have been inconceivable at the time of Selma.
Obama is not leading the Democratic field at this point. But there seems little doubt that the reason he is polling No. 2, and not No. 1, has nothing to do with his race.
Today, at a time when our nation's relations and actions abroad have as much import on our welfare and security as they have ever had, a black woman from Alabama represents us internationally as our secretary of state. Although she works and speaks on behalf of every American of every color and background, surely Condoleezza Rice never forgets who she is, and her own roots in the rural South.
The chairmen of three Fortune 100 corporations are black men, and we see many black senior executives today in the ranks of our nation's largest corporations.
All the above, again, would have been inconceivable at the time of Selma.
But, more fundamentally, Selma was a time when the nation still was institutionally flawed regarding the reality that blacks, as citizens, faced.
As the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments followed the Civil War, so the Voting Rights Act of 1965 followed Selma.
The Rev. Martin Luther King pointed out that "It may be true that you cannot legislate morality, but behavior can be regulated." He observed that through legislation, he may not be able to get the other guy to love him, but he sure can use it to stop the guy from lynching him.
The chapter of history that Selma defined was a chapter when legislative action was needed to deal with the problem of race. In that sense, it was a defining moment.
But today, we do not have institutional problems. We have human problems.
Whereas King was correct -- that we can regulate behavior with legislation -- it is also true that this can only get us part of the way to solving our problems. Even after establishing legislative protections, we still have human reality to deal with. And in this sense, our achievements individually, and as a society, will only reflect our choices and qualities as individual human beings.
We just saw, in the grotesque case at Duke University, how charges of racism can be used as a political tool to serve the selfish goals of ambitious individuals. Sadly, the press, the NAACP, Sharpton, the president of Duke University and 88 members of the Duke faculty bought into the evil scheme of then-District Attorney Mike Nifong.
Black youth today must not submit to the politics of hatred, and not lose perspective that they live in a country that is free. They must not lose perspective that despite the limitations of the human condition -- that the tendency to do evil cannot be eradicated by legislation -- if they work hard, and keep their values intact, their dreams can be achieved.
So Jena is not a defining moment, but part of an ongoing reality toward which we must constantly be aware and toward which we must constantly be vigilant.
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