ON PAPER, at least, Jena is typical of many smaller towns in rural Louisiana, a state where I spent more than a decade. The population of the town has barely grown in half a century. Economic growth has been slower than in boom states elsewhere in the South. And even though black and white students attend the same schools, old tensions live on - and erupt in unpredictable ways.
How did sleepy Jena become the site of a major civil-rights protest that attracted thousands this week? Tensions had been mounting for some time. The day after black students at Jena High sat under a tree where white kids usually hung out, nooses turned up on its branches. And while administrators at the school recommended the expulsion of the white students responsible, they were only suspended. No hate-crime or racial-intimidation charges were filed.
A few months after the nooses appeared, six black students were accused of beating up a white student, and initially charged with attempted murder. District Attorney Reed Walters clearly overreached; Mark Talley, a white former prosecutor in Jena who also does defense work, says a second-degree battery charge would have been appropriate. He also thinks, though, that the noose incident and the case of the so-called Jena six are unrelated but have become improperly conflated in the minds of protesters and the public.
Even if so, it's easy to understand the general grievance that brought throngs of protesters from across the country. Federal civil-rights laws ended formal discrimination against black people decades ago. But a system of laws that seems neutral can have results that look particularly harsh to African-Americans.
This is surely true in Louisiana. A 2003 study showed that black youths were four times as likely to be sent to the state's chaotic juvenile prisons as whites with similar records for the same types of crime. Systemwide reforms are getting underway, but slowly. Ironically, Jena itself helped make reformers' case. The town used to be the site of a privately operated juvenile prison. Heralded as an advance when it opened in 1998, the place quickly descended into Dickensian madness. Fortunately, it closed less than two years later.
In the present case, Walters has complained to reporters that the beating victim has been ignored. And the presence of heat-seeking civil-rights leaders such as Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton in the town may not gain much sympathy for the Jena six.
Talley and other civic leaders in Jena are putting together a "reconciliation team" of pastors and business leaders to soothe the tensions. This may sound corny, but what else is there? It's an approach that's overdue in Jena - and will be needed, in lots of places, for a long time.