Lessons From the Jena Six

The House Judiciary Committee held a hearing this week to discuss the controversial case of the Jena Six, in which trumped up charges were brought against six black teens following a series of racially charged incidents in a small Louisiana town sparked by the hanging of nooses at a public high school.

Among those who testified was Richard Cohen, president of the Southern Poverty Law Center. His testimony challenged the notion promoted by some that the way toward justice in Jena would be for hate crime charges to be brought against the white students behind the noose incident:

"The criminal law is a blunt instrument, and too many of our young people are already being pushed out of our schools and into our prisons. A far wiser course than increasing federal prosecutions would be increasing federal investment in services designed to soothe the racial and ethnic tensions simmering in our nation's schools and to respond promptly when hate crimes occur."

Instead, Cohen said, Congress should consider increasing the size of the Justice Department's Community Relations Service, a program that was created by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to ease conflicts arising from differences in race and national origin but that has shrunk even while the nation has grown more diverse.

Cohen also called on Congress to hold hearings about the collection of hate crime data, and he urged lawmakers to support the Local Law Enforcement Hate Crime Prevention Act of 2007, which would require the collection of data about hate crimes committed by and against juveniles.

The Center's Tolerance.org program has produced a guide for educators called "Six Lessons from Jena" that aims to prevent such incidents from happening again. The guide is available online here.