My Sunday column: Jena not unique

The small Louisiana town of Jena is about an hour and a half away from Opelousas, the town where I was editor of a newspaper about the size of The Herald for three years.
On the surface, Jena and Opelousas are nothing alike. Jena has a population of nearly 3,000, while Opelousas’ figure was about 23,000. The median household income in Jena is $35,000; while Opelousas has one of the lowest figures in the nation at $14,500 per household.
Biggest difference of all: Whites make up about nearly 85 percent of Jena. In Opelousas, nearly 70 percent of the people are black.
The events in Jena these past few months (especially the past week) have got me thinking about Louisiana lately. It really is an amazing state in so many ways, but it seems it’s a state that can’t shake the bad publicity when it comes to racism.
From the time in 1991 when former Klansman David Duke ran for governor (and lost in a runoff) to 2003 when race became a major issue in the New Orleans response to Hurricane Katrina — the state has been marred by negative press.
You’d think being a white editor in a predominantly black area, the issue of race would have come up a few times during my tenure there.
It did. But not in the way you’d think.
I saw racism firsthand when my newspaper made it a goal to better reflect our readership by trying our best to equalize the number of white people and black people who appeared in positive news stories on our front page. We literally counted faces to make sure our readers were equally celebrated and represented in our paper.
I began to receive several phone calls from our white readers about the “change.” We had a few cancellations, and I kept one message where an older woman informed me, “I’m not racist, but keep in mind who the people who buy your paper are.”
The election season in 2006 was especially racially charged. A burning cross was found at the doorsteps of one of the surrounding town’s (about the size of Jena) municipal building the week before a white female mayoral candidate went up against the incumbent black female candidate.
The moment I’ll never forget came the morning we endorsed a black female sheriff over the white male candidate. I literally had newspapers thrown at my door that morning, dozens of cancellations and a phone message calling me a “N—– lover.”
This was in 2006. Not 1966.
Now, I don’t know if the six young men in Jena deserved the punishment they got for beating up a white classmate. I don’t know if the case warranted several thousand people marching in their defense. I’m not even sure this is the case that deserves comparisons to the civil rights marches of the 1960s.
But I do know, and I have witnessed, that racism is alive and well … so you know, it’s very possible these teens didn’t get a fair deal.
Sure, racism isn’t as rampant as it was in the 1960s. The difference today is about 90 percent of us have grown up and moved on (that figure was much lower 40 years ago). It’s the other 10 percent who are keeping us down. It’s the other 10 percent who’ll never learn.
I want to end by saying racism isn’t confined to Louisiana, and it definitely isn’t confined to whites and blacks. I’ve spoken with several people since moving to Sanford who are openly racist when it comes to Hispanics in our area.
I feel it’s almost accepted here. Please tell me I’m wrong.
One day, Hispanics may come together and call us out on it. I just hope it doesn’t take 40 years for something to get worked out.


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