Jena, La., has been portrayed by big-city reporters, who swarmed to the small town Thursday when it became the center of a racial protest, as a place caught in a time warp. African Americans, who make up about 12% of the town's population of 3,000, live in their own neighborhood, are buried in their own cemetery and reportedly can't even get their hair cut at the white barbershop. The Revs. Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson have likened Jena to Selma, Ala., which became a national symbol of Jim Crow repression in the 1960s.
Many white residents, meanwhile, find such criticism bewildering. To them, Jena is just a pleasant, friendly place to live and work. They say everything would be fine if all the media and outside protesters -- agitators, they would have been called in a not-so-bygone day -- would just clear out and leave them alone.
The reality is probably somewhere in between. Jena is no Selma; the uneven treatment accorded to black and white students by school officials and local prosecutors isn't nearly as overt as the discrimination that racked the South decades ago, when racism was enforced by law as well as custom. It's highly troubling nonetheless -- and the problems won't go away when the protesters pack up for home.