Perspectives: Jena Sparks Interest in African-American Youth in Civil Rights

It is unfortunate that the Jena Six incident occurred but it awakened a generation of African–American youth who have become too complacent, passive, and expectant of entitlements.

Who could have guessed that the recent racial conflicts in Jena, La., would be a catalyst to inspire mass numbers of African-American youth to pick up the banner for justice and fairness in our American criminal justice system which is infested with layers of racial inequalities? 

The Jena Six incident was an awakening to six young African-American males and to Black youth around the country to the fact that the justice system is not totally blind, and if ignored, will allow racism to plague the system.

It was unfortunate that this incident occurred but it awakened a generation of African–American youth who have become too complacent, passive, and expectant of entitlements. Sadly, too many African-American youth have overly indulged in the peripheral benefits that the civil rights movement provided. It was never the dream of our civil rights advocates who sacrificed everything, including their lives, for Black youth to have an opportunity to play professional sports, be rappers and wear designer clothing. Clearly, there are Black youth who have taken advantage of many social and economic opportunities that civil rights advocates fought to ensure for the next generation. But far too many Black youth are unwilling to invest in their own future to receive permanent economic benefits for themselves and the Black community.

For those who marched, advocated and campaigned for an end to racial prejudices, segregation and Jim Crow in the 1960s, their shoes are worn, spirits are weakened, hearts are broken as they have helplessly watched in pain as our judicial systems and politicians, slowly and meticulously, chip away many of our civil rights gains. Racism in America continues to lie in shallow waters and, without warning, rises up with a vengeance to remind us that the struggle continues for equal justice in this country.

In a few weeks, the Jena Six incident will disappear from the front pages of newspapers and the lead story of broadcast news. The marches will have ended and many Black youth will have made the long bus ride from Jena back to their communities. Racism will again slip just below the shallow waters until another egregious racial incident occurs. The Jena Six incident, wrong as it was, has given the Black community an opportunity to encourage and motivate our Black youth to take their rightful place as the next generation of highly educated Black leaders. The challenge is how to capture this momentum to inspire and motivate African-American youth to become lawyers, judges, legislators, prosecutors, public defenders and law enforcement officials to push racism in this country into deeper waters. At least, at this moment we have their attention.

Professor Weatherspoon teaches Civil Rights at Capital University Law School in Columbus, Ohio.


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