A racial Rorschach test

Help me with a little experiment. Go watch this video footage of the mayor of Memphis, Willie Herenton, giving his victory speech upon being elected to an unprecedented fifth term.

For added data, here’s an editorial about his speech in The Commercial Appeal, a newspaper he mentions. Here also is a story showing how the vote broke down along racial lines, and here’s an item about election night from an alternative paper.

What I’m wondering is: Based on this speech, what is your impression of the city of Memphis, and of its mayor?

My Sunday column is a sort of funky one, as it gropes around the problem of the dramatically different ways that black and white Americans see things around them. It’s a question I’ve been pondering anew ever since the Jena Six thing hit the headlines — I was struck by all the well-meaning black folks who were willing to suspend their lives to go march in behalf of some kids who, basically beat up another kid. Yeah, it looked like the justice system overreacted, but how could a person looking at it from afar see such moral clarity in a situation in which I saw no heroes.

This case from Memphis seems another illustration.

If you can, get someone who is not of the same skin color as you to look at the same stuff I’m asking you to look at. I’m guessing that would mean recruiting a black friend, since I have this image — which is in itself probably an unjustified racial assumption — of most of y’all as being way white. If I’m wrong about that, forgive me.

Anyway, please share your thoughts.

14 thoughts on “A racial Rorschach test

  1. Michael Rodgers

    First, remind yourself of your post:
    Second, read the NY Times letters to the editor today about Tom Friedman’s column about Generation Q.
    Third, listen to Mary Chapin Carpenter’s song, “On With The Song” from her recent album “The Calling.”
    Fourth, go rent and watch “The Accused.” Should Jodie Foster’s character be charged with attempted murder?
    Now it’s time to answer the crucial question: When you think of racial violence, do you think of a mugging or a hanging?
    I think of “Strange Fruit,” and I oppose the unfair justice in Jena, LA. I think the ones who hung the nooses from the tree should have been charged with a severe crime, like those instigators in “The Accused.”
    Perhaps others think differently. Regardless of what people think, the problem is crystal clear: We need to move together as a people to fight divisiveness.
    Michael Rodgers
    Columbia, SC

  2. Brad Warthen

    And Michael, I understand what you say when you "oppose the unfair justice in Jena." The difference may be that I see it all as a mess, with bad feeling all around. I would say, if asked, that the prosecutor overreached with the charges — something that the courts seemed to agree on, in the one case that had gotten that far, last time I looked. But how does one get SO indignant that one pulls up and travels across the country to MARCH about it, as though we were talking about pure good vs. pure bad, and you really, truly believed that you had to take to the streets to see things right?

    When you’ve got kids brawling over race, I find it hard to get all that indignant on behalf of any of them individually, and I certainly wouldn’t choose sides based on which ones had skin tones similar to mine. (And in that, you are right to link to the above-referenced post, because that, too, was about how mystified I am at group identification.) I just lack the impulse to side with somebody because we belong to the same granfalloon, as Kurt Vonnegut would have termed it. I find it hard to sympathize much either with the kids who did the beating up or the one who got beaten, under the circumstances.

    All I can do is say that the circumstances are lousy, and reflect obsession with race getting out of hand.

  3. Michael Rodgers

    If any issue would cause such an outcry it’s this education/criminal justice issue. Parents want their kids to get high school diplomas, not prison records. In Jena, the white parents succeeded and the black parents failed, and people who care deeply are asking why.
    Michael Rodgers
    Columbia, SC

  4. Blair

    The three white Jena teenagers who hung the nooses say they were unaware that nooses had any racial connotations. Is this plausable? The truth is that nooses were not widely recognized as racist symbols until the Jena Six incident made headlines. This explains the sudden rash of noose-hanging incidents across the United States. Until Jena, burning crosses or the letters KKK were the universally recognized symbols of racial oppression. Now even nooses hung in Halloween displays are said to be racist.
    Most Americans probably equate lyching with Hollywood westerns in which posses string up rustlers and outlaws without benfit of trial. Even in the Deep South, a third of those lynched during the lynch law era that follow Reconstruction were white. Articles about Billie Holiday’s song, “Strange Fruit,” began appearing in scholary journals and upper-crust newspapers such as the New York Times, but relatively few Americans, and even few high school students, read these publications.
    The three white students hung two nooses, not three as reported in most newspapers. The two nooses become three nooses because three nooses are said to be KKK symbols, something the three white students and most other Americans did not know.
    Donald Washington, the U.S. attorney for the Western District of Louisiana, chose not to pursue hate crime charges against the three teens accused of hanging nooses at Jena High School because it could not be established that the nooses were meant to intimidate black classmates. He also did not bring hate-crime charges against the Jena Six, black students accused of attacking a white classmate, because there was no evidence the beating was racially motivated. Washington said that the noose-hanging would have been a misdemeanor anyway and a hate-crime must be “a federal felony of violence.”

  5. Randy E

    I think the Jena and Memphis situations can and should be addressed with and without the context of race.
    In Jena, you have a group of kids beating an individual kid. Regardless of the racial aspects this is a serious incident and should be dealt with harshly. As a teacher I’m profoundly distrubed that the adults in this situation could so easily dismiss this act. Michael, beating a kid and hanging a noose hardly warrant the same severity of response.
    In Memphis, the mayor is the highest elected official representing the ENTIRE city. He is the one to take the lead in dealing with city problems. Herenton seems to justify his passing the buck.
    The race aspects of both make for a different problem. I would like to hear whites in Jena show a willingness to consider that a disparity exists. I would like blacks to hold the mob that lynched the kid accountable.
    In Memphis, it appears that the race card was used to some degree on both sides. Regardless, the mayor spoke of “Memphis making a decision” regarding race. It seems he is absolved from this responsibility. It’s “their” problem. As explained in the editorial, he’s the leader he should take the lead in reconciliation not retribution.

  6. Michael Rodgers

    Brad and Randy E,
    By “equal justice” I meant equal opportunity for and access to appropriate justice, not that the crimes are equal. I apologize for not being more clear.
    Michael Rodgers
    Columbia, SC

  7. Brad Warthen

    Blair, I would not try to excuse the noose business. You don’t have to know the history to know that’s an obnoxious, hateful action, regardless of race. The racial component just exacerbates it.
    The noose business needed to be dealt with swiftly and sternly, through administrative measures. Whether it was a crime or not, I don’t know.
    I will say that I don’t believe it SHOULD be a crime. I don’t believe in “hate crime” laws. A free country should never criminalize attitudes, no matter how offensive most of us see those attitudes as being. That’s thoughtcrime, and I prefer to leave it to the fictional realm of 1984. This is one of those few issues where I agree with libertarians.
    That said, minors have very limited rights, and school administrators, standing in loco parentis, have an obligation to keep order. Hanging the nooses was a completely unacceptable act within that context, and school authorities needed to come down hard on those responsible.
    Of course, as we have agreed, it doesn’t compare to physical violence under any circumstances. Actual violence IS properly the province of criminal law. But that law needs to be exercised with restraint, so that charges and punishments fit the crime and are not draconian.

  8. Ronald Abrams

    The real victim in all of this was the tree. A perfectly health large oak was cut down to remove it as a place for where the “white’ kids congregated there and hung nooses on its limbs. A typical knee jerk reaction by school officials.

  9. Mike Cakora

    Brad –
    I think that Blair had it right about the “nooses.” The scalawags did not tie proper nooses, but slip knots as used in what they were familiar with as members of the school;s rodeo club.
    If whites wanted to intimidate blacks, I think they’d go the burning cross route today. But I’m a white guy from Chicago who likes to antagonize Unitarians by putting a burning question mark on their front lawns…
    I don’t have the time and energy to create the Jena timeline, but from what I’ve seen enough time elapsed between some of the events now so well connected in everybody’s brain that I wonder what the heck the connection is. Call me confused.
    That said, it may well be that Jena is a hotbed of racial hatred, but given the mediocre track record of the media and their tendency for political correctness, I don’t think that case has been made well yet.

  10. Marvin B. Austin

    Brad, I like that you are willing to wrestle openly with the “cognitive divide between black and white.” However, as Prof. Christopher Edley says, “race is a harder problem to solve than curing the common cold.”
    It seems to me some part of your prospective regarding Mayor Herndon and Jena, Louisiana are cast in the perspective of white privilege. It is the privilege of white folks to view these situations as isolated events or based on individual merit.
    African Americans often view these situations in the context of a collective. All over this country there are situations of differential treatment. The differential treatment (as with past discrimination) is not based on individual failings, rather it’s racism based on skin color.
    Despite many efforts to bridge the racial divide and bring about understanding, very little has been done that changes the imbalance of power. There must be equal parts of African American responsibility, changing hearts, and changing the balance of power if there is to eventually be a real bridging of the cognitive divide.

  11. Michael Rodgers

    Brad and others,
    Mike Collins had a nice roundtable recently:
    You can go to wfae.org and browse the archives under Charlotte Talks. Or try this link directly (paste into browser):
    And I’ll recommend another film: “Remember the Titans.” And I just saw “Bobby,” which is a wonderful movie, and it also has a fantastic speech by a character played by Laurence Fishburne. I’m using the approach he advocates in my work to get the Confederate Flag down from where we fly it from a flagpole on the Statehouse grounds.
    I’m trying to learn more and more about these issues. Brad, perhaps some people went to march at Jena simply to get a first hand account and to meet and talk to people.
    Finally, I really liked the comments of Marvin B. Austin. Good job, sir.
    Michael Rodgers
    Columbia, SC

  12. Mike Cakora

    I heard a bit of today’s C-SPAN coverage of Jena where Rev. Al Sharpton was in top form. The goal is to get the Feds to add resources to the civil rights investigation that’s already underway. Still, what happened is not clear, as this AP report by Todd Lewan indicates:

    Black and white, they say that in its repeated retelling — enhanced by omissions and alterations of fact — the story has taken on a life of its own. It has transformed a school-yard stomping into an international cause celebre, and those accused of participating in it into what one major Southern daily came to describe as “latter-day Scottsboro Boys.”
    And they say that while their town’s race relations are not unblemished, this is not the cauldron of bigotry that has been depicted.
    To Ben Reid, 61, who set down roots in Jena in 1957 and lived here throughout the civil rights era, “this whole thing ain’t no downright, racial affair.”
    Reid, who is black, presently serves on the LaSalle Parish council. He reads the papers. He hears the talk outside of church on Sundays about how the Jena Six business is dividing his hometown down racial lines.
    He doesn’t buy it.
    “You have good people here and bad people here, on both sides. This thing has been blown out of proportion. What we ought to do is sit down and talk this thing out, ’cause once all is said and done and you media folks leave, we’re the ones who’re going to have to live here.”
    Clearly, something bad occurred in Jena, population 2,971, an old sawmill town in LaSalle Parish that, once upon a time, was Ku Klux Klan country. And, as most white and black residents readily agree, there is no good reason for embracing what unfolded here.
    But what happened, exactly?

    Read the rest: much of what you know for sure is wrong. Whatever happened will become immaterial as the Al Sharpton’s and others spread their version with selective facts. This has become political, not a matter of civil rights or justice.

  13. zzazzeefrazzee

    With regard to Jena, I think about under-reported aspects of the story:
    1) What did the white kid say to precipitate a fight? Not that I think the fight was justifiable, but I do think that many have portrayed him to be a “victim”, when maybe he should be thought of as having a big mouth. It has been said that he made snide comments about one of the maltreated by one of the black kids who was maltreated at a party the previous weekend.
    2) Where were the adults in this mess? If they really wanted to RESOLVE the problem, they would have nipped in the bud from the get-go. Instead, we see an escalating series of events


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *