Every story can be told a number of different ways. Each person in a given narrative understands what went on from a particular perspective. Sometimes, if that person is especially perspicacious and especially curious, then she or he can see a particular event from the perspective or one or two other people. But the individual's perspective is always limited, and this is a good thing. If we cannot see the world from our own point-of-view then we have no hope of understanding our own virtues and vices, our own sense of cause and effect.
But it is also true that there is an important place in the world for understanding an event from a larger perspective. This is the role (or, at least, one of the roles) that scholarship plays in our lives. Scholarship provides that larger lens, that broader focus on the world that helps us to place our own perspective into the whole perspective of an historical moment. However, just to keep things complicated, there are different scholarly views as well as different individual ones. The paper examines a series of events that took place in the town of Jena, Louisiana, a group of events that highlighted the barely underlying racial tensions in the town, tensions that color Southern life in general and, indeed, American life in general.
The first scholarly perspective that I will apply to this event to provide a greater depth of understanding is the social conflict theory. It has its origins in Marxist social theory and is based in the idea that different groups of society have different amounts of power. It is hard to imagine that anyone would deny that this is true. Indeed, the entire Occupy Wall Street movement arose out of a general acknowledgement that there is significant inequality in American society. But the social conflict model is based on more than the idea that there are different degrees and access to wealth in our society.
The next part of this theory is the key for the process of understanding this event: Not only do different individuals and groups have differential access to power, but those who have more power use this power to oppress and even sometimes to torment those without equal power (Macionis, 201, pp. 88-9). This seems to be an appropriate lens with which to view what happened in Jena because the white students, along with the white power structure in the city, including the criminal justice system that is under the control of whites, used their power to do significant harm to the "Jena 6."
The black students involved had a clear sense of what was happening in terms of the use of differential power:
Decades of suppressed racial hostility spilled forth at the appearance of those swaying nooses. Word spread quickly that day; before long, scores of black students congregated under the tree. "As black students, we didn't call it a protest," says Robert Bailey Jr., one of the Jena Six. "We just called it standing up for ourselves." (A town in turmoil, 1997)
Bailey understands that the white students would understand the actions of the black students as a protest because they would see the new hang-out place for blacks as a clear challenge to the power that white residents of the city hold, power that seemed right and natural to them. The black students, on the other hand understood very well that their actions were a challenge in terms of how the white students saw their world. But the black students also understood that the whites' version of Jena was not natural at all but reflected a certain social order that could be changed.
Looked out from the outside, it is very difficult to see what happened in Jena as anything but an abuse of power by the whites in the town against the blacks. Except for the fact that it is unlikely that this is the way in which the white residents of Jena who were involved in the process would probably not see the situation in the same way. They would probably have seen what happened as what should have happened. They would (at least some of them) would in all likelihood have described the situation as simply the natural order.
The father of one of the black students described the situation in the following way: "It felt like they were saying, "We can do what we want to those n-s'," says Marcus Jones, Bell's father" (A town in turmoil, 2007). This is the other side of how white residents felt: They did indeed most likely feel that they could do whatever they wanted to blacks because this is what they saw as the proper order of things.
Such an interpretation -- that things work out the way that they should -- reflects some of the basic tenets of structural-functionalism, which posits that society consists of a number of different parts that all work smoothly together, like the organs in a healthy human body. Not only do the different parts of society work smoothly together in this model, but this smooth functioning creates solidarity amongst all of the different factions, a solidarity that all groups accept as being good and right and natural and that perpetuates stability from one generation to the next (Holmwood, 2005, p. 96).
It should not be surprising at all that functionalism was the dominant scholarly paradigm used to explain society during the 1950s, an era in American history in which suburban stability was promoted in many quarters as the ideal form of civilization. Nor should it be surprising that the social conflict model described above came about during the student protests of the 1960s and 1970s as the college-age (and draft-age) generation began to fight the image of a smoothly functioning society that so many of their parents and professors had grown up with and continued to promote.
The final major sociological perspective through which the events in Jena should be considered is that of symbolic interactionism. The basic concepts of this theoretical model is that people understand their world because they create their own sense of meaning for people and events. People -- each one of us -- creates meaning through the ways in which we interact with each other both individually and as an individual meeting society as a whole.
Another way of looking at this is that as individuals we interact with the world and everything and everyone in it and as the result of thousands of small, even minute, actions and interactions each day we come to conclusions about our place in the work and what life means to us. This perspective also offers us an important way to understand the world as it appeared to the residents of Jena. Each of the groups involved in the racial conflagration that burst forth in the school grew to understand their world in terms of small interactions. Indeed, a fundamental part of the problem in the town was that the groups talked only to their own members so that the meanings that each group developed about the world grew farther and farther apart.
The members of each group were effectively preaching to the choir, although the two choirs were singing very different songs in different keys.
Soon after [junior Kenneth] Purvis and several black friends ventured over to the tree to hang out with some white classmates. According to the school's unspoken racial codes, however, that area was reserved for white kids; Purvis is black. Some white students didn't look kindly on the encroachment: the next day, three nooses hung from the oak's branches. (A town in turmoil, 2007)
The whole arc of the racial violence and hatred that arose in Jena can be explained by…