The media spotlight might have shone most intensely on Jena, Louisiana, but a symbol of racial violence has been hung across America lately, spurring anger, resentment and a big question.
Do all the incidents of hanging nooses—many with hateful notes to their intended black audience—reveal an ugly truth about race relations in the United States, or are they just stupid pranks by a few foolish, attention-starved people?
Since September, nooses have been found in a Coast Guard office, a suburban New York police station locker room, a North Carolina high school, a Home Depot in New Jersey and on the campus of the University of Maryland.
A Brooklyn, New York, high school principal, who is black, received one in the mail recently, along with a letter that read, “White Power Forever,” The New York Times reported. In mid-October, a noose was discovered outside a post office at New York City’s “Ground Zero,” just days after a noose was hung on the office door of a black Columbia University professor.
Earlier this week, the head of a black mannequin was found hanging from a noose outside a home in Valley Stream, New York, police said. Beneath the noose, on the mannequin’s neck, was a piece of paper with the “n-word” written on it, said Detective Jeff Schilling of the Nassau County Police Department.
And days before Halloween, a Stratford, Connecticut, woman reluctantly removed from her yard a dark-hued figure hanging from a noose. It was among numerous innocuous lawn decorations, such as ghosts and a plastic grave marker.
“It’s unfortunate that now, we’re goingto have to think twice about what we display because someone might be offended,” Jennifer Cervero told CNN.
Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate crimes, said that the apparent increase in noose incidents is, in part, reaction to the news coverage of the “Jena 6”.
Since September, the SPLC has recorded between 40 and 50 suspected hate crimes involving nooses, one involving two people traveling the road to Jena during the protests in a pickup truck with nooses affixed to the bumper.
“Tens of thousands of white people, if not more, feel that the events in Jena were grossly misportrayed by a politically correct media that twisted what was [to them], really, a six-on-one, black-on-white hate crime into an instance of the oppression of black people,” Potok said. “That accounts, in part, for a backlash.”
Of the 5,500 racial harassment charge filings in 2006, anecdotal information from EEOC field offices suggests that some involved nooses, but the agency is unable to quantify that data, according to EEOC spokesman David Grinberg.
On Wednesday, seven black workers employed by an Oklahoma-based drilling company won a $290,000 settlement in a discrimination lawsuit which claimed they felt threatened by the display of a noose on a Gulf of Mexico oil rig.
“It’s time for corporate America to be more proactive in preventing and eliminating racist behavior,” said EEOC Chairwoman Naomi C. Earp. “The EEOC intends to make clear that race and color discrimination in the workplace, whether verbal or behavioral, is unacceptable and will not be tolerated.”
The university says three students had hung the nooses and a tire as part of a class project to show the difference between life and death.
Investigators say the students told them the nooses represented death and the tire symbolized life and young children.
“Even with art, there is a boundary that you have to stay within and you can’t overstep that boundary, especially with our past,” said MU sophomore, Dan Morris.
“I do not think that was right. I don’t think people should have the right to hang nooses in trees, even though if it was an art project. It still crosses the line,” said MU Sophomore, Anthony DiMuccio.
“Especially on a campus that’s dominated by white people and it’s only a few black people,” said Nick Winbush, a MU Freshman and basketball player. “It’s probably only three-percent black people. I don’t think it’s acceptable.”
The university removed the noose and tire saying the display was insensitive.
“They also have to evaluate their displays in light of community sensitivities and I think what will come out of this are important discussions that we should have,” said Jeffrey Herbst, Miami University Provost and Executive Vice-President.
The university is investigating and is interviewing the students and the professor.
Miami University campus police say the students could face several charges including inducing panic, ethnic intimidation and disorderly conduct.
[Editors Note: The follow-up story “Miami U. Student Apologizes for Racially Offensive Art Display” can be read here.]