Jena, O.J., and Race

As thousands chanting "Free the Jena Six" swarmed the streets of the tiny town of Jena, La., prominent black activists said that today could mark the start of a 21st-century civil rights movement, one that would highlight the still present racial disparities that plague the American criminal justice system.

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As thousands chanting "Free the Jena Six" swarmed the streets of the tiny town of Jena, La., prominent black activists said that today could mark the start of a 21st-century civil rights movement, one that would highlight the still present racial disparities that plague the American criminal justice system.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson, the Rev. Al Sharpton, and Dennis Courtland Hayes, interim president and CEO of the NAACP,  were all present in the small town divided over a case in which six black high school students were first charged with attempted murder, and then with less serious charges, for the beating of their white classmate while white students went unpunished for dangling nooses in the schoolyard.

Activists say this is the perfect picture of the inequality that persists in the criminal justice system.

The last time U.S. News heavily reported on this topic was during the mid-'90s, when O. J. Simpson, who is again making headlines this week, was being tried for murder in the slayings of his former wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Goldman.

At the time, many questioned whether the former football great could get a fair trial with the mélange of wealth, race, celebrity, obsessive love, and domestic violence all involved in the case. New debates sprang up on racism, as detailed in this article, where academics and social critics questioned how much white racism is responsible for the disparity in income and education between blacks and whites.

Opinion writer John Leo discussed the trend of "race-based jury nullification," where black jurors would acquit blacks on trial, even if there was overwhelming evidence against them, as a way to remedy the imbalance.

As the Simpson murder trial dwindled to a close, the issue of race and the criminal justice system was blanketed by other racially charged issues, for example education, which U.S. News covered in 2004 detailing the public school system 50 years after the landmark Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka.

And while the problem seems to persist, it wasn't until this week that the issue returned to the limelight, as the Jena situation and the man whose murder trial shed light on racial issues more than a decade ago compete for the headlines.

~Nikki Schwab