and its 'Tree of Ignorance'
To the Teacher:
controversy at Louisiana's Jena High School offers a teachable
moment for students to examine America's racial issues. The student
reading below presents an overview of the Jena events and comments
by whites and blacks who live there. Suggested student activities
include a microlab and subjects for further inquiry.
might also find it useful for students to read about and discuss
recent Supreme Court rulings on school desegregation (see "Race,
the 14th Amendment & Our Schools: The Supreme Court Rules"
and "Affirmative Action
and the Courts" on this website). "Teaching
on Controversial Issues," also on this site, suggests
a way of thinking about and teaching such issues.
One: Events in Jena
20 years an oak tree grew in the courtyard of Jena High School.
It became known as the "white tree," a place for white
kids to hang out.
a school assembly on August 31, 2006, Kenneth Purvis, a black
junior, asked Gawan Burgess, the assistant principal, whether
blacks could sit under the white tree. "You know you can
sit anywhere you want," Burgess replied. The next day Kenneth
Purvis and his cousin Bryant stood under the tree.
following morning two or three nooses (reports differ) hung from
the oak. They were quickly cut down.
nooses symbolized mob lynch killing, a practice that became common
in the South between the last part of the 19th century and World
War II. During that period, more than 250 people in Louisiana,
most of them African-American, were lynched. (New Yorker,
spread of the appearance of the nooses. Some black students and
parents complained about racial intimidation. School officials
suspended for three days three white students who admitted to
hanging the nooses. The U.S. attorney's office and the FBI investigated,
but did not file "hate crime" charges. Civil rights
a meeting with high school students, District Attorney Reed Walters,
flanked by police officers, said, "I can be your best friend
or your worst enemy. I can make your lives disappear with a stroke
of my pen." Black students, who were sitting together on
one side of the auditorium, said he aimed this comment directly
at them. Walters denied this, saying he spoke to all students,
black and white. (Laura Flanders, www.commondreams.org,
nooses were gone, but not the feelings they had aroused in Jena
(pronounced JEE-nuh), a rural town of 2,971, 230 miles northwest
of New Orleans, Louisiana. The population is 85 percent white,
15 percent black.
the following months, the high school experienced a fire caused
by arson and some fights between blacks and whites, but it is
not clear that they were related to the nooses on the tree.
December 4, during lunch hour, six black students attacked Justin
Barker, a white student, kicking and beating him unconscious.
He was taken to a hospital, then released and later that evening
attended a school event.
six black students were arrested. Five were charged with attempted
second-degree murder, a charge requiring the use of a deadly weapon.
DA Walters argued that the sneakers used to kick Justin Barker
were deadly weapons. These charges were later reduced. But in
June 2007, one of the attackers, Mychal Bell, 16, who had a criminal
record for battery and property damage, was convicted of aggravated
second degree battery as an adult. This conviction could have
jailed him for 15 years. However, a Louisiana appeals court ruled
that he should have been tried as a juvenile and overturned it.
the summer of 2007 school officials had the courtyard oak tree
chopped down, saying it would be used as firewood. But the feelings
aroused by the events the tree symbolized were far from gone.
September 20, thousands of demonstrators came to Jena, marching
to protest the discrepancy between the way the six black teenagers,
particularly Mychal Bell, had been treated compared to the three
white teenagers. One week later and after six months in jail,
Bell was released on bail. He will now be tried as a juvenile.
by area residents
Compton: "Every year at Jena High School there's a black
and white fight. It's always been tense. There's always been prejudice
and bigotry here." (www.nytimes.com,
Brown: "If you can figure out how to make a schoolyard fight
into an attempted murder charge, I'm sure you can figure out how
to make stringing nooses into a hate crime." (www.nytimes.com,
Jackson, a teacher at Jena High School: "White students can
do things and receive a slap on the hand." But authorities
"want to throw the book at blacks." (www.npr.org,
Bailey (Robert Bailey's mother): "It's always been about
race in Jena. Once you're here, you learn to deal with what happens
just gotten to a point that people were ready to stand up and
Jones (father of Mychal Bell): "It felt like they were saying,
'We can do whatever we want to those n_____s.'" (www.msnbc.com/newsweek,
Norris, owner of a restaurant: "They make it sound like the
whole town of Jena is just one big K.K.K. rally. It isn't. We
don't have lots of problems here. This is just a small town."
A. Paul, a minister, called the nooses "kids' play."
Coleman: "What bothers me is this town being labeled racist.
I'm not a racist." (www.ap.org,
Carl Smith: "The media has spread it all over the United
States that this is about race when it's not about race."
Brian Moran, pastor of Antioch Baptist Church: "It really
confuses me why anybody would say this is not a racist situation."
Hodges, an automotive technology teacher at Jena High School,
who planted the oak tree: "They have cast us as a bunch of
ignorant, racist country bumpkins. It's about as far from the
truth as you can get. There is racism in Jena, but it's not only
in Jena, it's not only in Louisiana, it's not only in the South,
it's an American thing." (www.gsels.ucla.edu/mclarenblog,
quoting the Los Angeles Times, 9/21/07) "I watched
that tree grow. It was planted as a tree of knowledge. But guess
what it became? It became a tree of ignorance." (msn.com/newsweek,
What questions do students have about the reading? How might they
How fairly were the black students treated, in your opinion? The
white students? In each case, what makes you think so? How would
you have punished them?
Compare and contrast the comments by whites and blacks in Jena
on its racial situation. How do you explain the differences?
Paul Krugman wrote in the New York Times (9/24/07),
"The reality is that things haven't changed nearly as much
as people think. Racial tension, especially in the South, has
never gone away
.And race remains one of the defining factors
in modern American politics." What evidence do students have
to support or to oppose Krugman's statements? What might they
do to gather evidence supporting or countering Krugman's view?
Do you think that the school officials' decision to cut down the
oak was a good one? If so, why? If not, why not?
If you were a school official in Jena, what would you do to address
subject of this suggested microlab is sensitive. Conducting it
requires a classroom environment in which students respect one
another, feel safe from attack and free to offer their views in
a democratic spirit of give and take.
is a structured small group experience in which people deepen
their understanding of an issue through speaking and listening.
It isn't really a time for discussion or dialogue; instead, it's
a time for each person to share her or his thoughts and feelings
in response to questions. When a person is speaking, the rest
of the group should listen only, without interrupting.
students into groups of three or four. Some guidelines for participants:
It's okay to pass if you need more time to think or would rather
not respond. This is a timed activity. Each person will have about
one minute to speak, and I will let you know when that time is
up by say, "Time." Then the next person will speak.
Please speak from your own experience and point of view. Share
what you feel comfortable sharing. Ask for a volunteer from each
group who is willing to speak first.
Some questions for the microlab:
How do you view the relations among people of different races
and ethnicities in this school?
What have you observed about those relations that you regard as
Do you think that the relations among races in this school reflect
those in this community? Why?
Is racism, as Ray Hodges states, "an American thing"?
Why or why not?
What might there be about racism and relations between whites
and blacks that you would like to learn more about?
assessment of the microlab
first time you use the microlab, you might want to ask students
did this process work for you?
did you notice about how you were listening?
the process challenging to you? How? Why?
a follow-up class discussion, giving students the opportunity
to share views and for them to consider the possibility of follow-up
study on racism.
history of race relations in America goes back almost four centuries.
It includes many vicious controversies and continues to raise
many important questions. The Jena High School controversy offers
an opportunity for students to inquire into such matters as the
of blacks in 19th and 20th century America
K.K.K. and other white supremacist groups
1954 Supreme Court desegregation decision and its results
study of Central High School, Little Rock, Arkansas then and now
Katrina and its disproportionate effects on blacks
Supreme Court decisions, notably on the University of Michigan's
affirmative action programs and the Seattle and Louisville school
South, once a stronghold for Democrats, is now a Republican stronghold.
What explains this? Some people think this development is related
to racism in the South. Do you agree?
criminal justice system's treatment of blacks. Students might
begin by considering the following:
to the Justice Department, blacks are almost three times as likely
as whites to have their cars searched when they are pulled over
and more than twice as likely to be arrested. They are more than
five times as likely as whites to be sent to jail and are sentenced
to 20 percent longer jail time." --Gary Younge, "Jena
is America," The Nation, 10/8/07
"Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton and other leaders of the Jena
demonstration who view events there, and the racial horror of
our prisons, as solely the result of white racism are living not
just in the past but in a state of denial." --Orlando Paterson,
"Jena, O. J. and the Jailing of Black America," New
York Times, 9/30/07
lesson was written for TeachableMoment.Org, a project of Morningside
Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. We welcome
your comments. Please email them to: firstname.lastname@example.org.