Howard Witt returns to Paris, Jena, and Linden looking for signs of change


Chicago Tribune senior correspondent Howard Witt has returned to Linden and Paris, Texas, as well as Jena, Louisiana to discover whether the fundamental racial dynamics of the towns were alterned in any meaningful way after the TV cameras departed and the headlines faded away.

Click here for Witt's extensive story. 

Some highlights from Witt's Chicago Tribune article:

  • Plotted on a map, the towns of Paris, Linden and Jena line up neatly along a 300-mile diagonal that falls across the Texas-Louisiana border.  But to many African-Americans, that line looks more like a gash across the beneficent face that the New South tries to present to the rest of the nation.  In many ways, Linden no longer resembles the starkly divided town where many white residents once closed ranks around the four white youths who in 2003 assaulted a mentally retarded black man and dropped him beside a garbage dump, unconscious and bleeding in his brain. Instead, many here say that over the last year a new spirit of interracial cooperation has infused the town of nearly 2,300 people, 78 percent of whom are white and 20 percent black.
  • Little has changed in Paris in the nine months since the town was thrust onto the national stage over the case of Shaquanda Cotton, the 14-year-old black girl sent to youth prison for shoving a hall monitor at Paris High School.

    Joe McCarthy, a prominent African-American leader, joined a recent lunch with several white businessmen who called on him to endorse their view that there is no racial discrimination in Paris. And to a point, McCarthy agreed.

    But then the discussion turned toward allegations of racial profiling by the Paris police. And McCarthy, a middle-age man who drives a luxury car and served on the City Council from 2001 to 2004, suddenly volunteered how he was pulled over while driving through downtown Paris early one morning.

    "I was the only one out at that time of morning, there was only one way you could turn, but the police officer said I had failed to use my turn signal," McCarthy recounted. "It just rubbed me wrong. Do I look suspicious? He only stopped me because I was black."

  • Smack in between the whites-only barber shop and the all-white bank sits Jena's white mayor, Murphy McMillin, behind his desk at City Hall. Yet the retired oil industry executive says he's baffled at why tens of thousands of African-Americans journeyed here in September to protest alleged racial discrimination in the town he's always known as quiet and contented.

    "There seems to be harmony among all the races here, so you can see why I've been surprised that the nation doesn't seem to think that's true," McMillin said. "There's a story being told by the national media that says we are very racist. I don't believe that. But I also don't believe we are perfect."  Many of the black residents here — they constitute 12 percent of the town's population of about 3,000 people and live mostly clustered in blighted neighborhoods — say they long ago learned to keep their heads low and not ask for much from Jena's dominant whites.

I'd suggest reading the article in its entirety.  Although it's a short time frame to expect much in the way of change in Paris or Jena, I think Mr. Witt's points are well taken.  Paris, Texas is my hometown, and I think whites there like in most American cities have no understanding of black life. 

Their view of whites on top blacks on bottom is their only point of reference.  The suggestion that that is a bad thing makes many folks become defensive. Project living, poor educational achievement, and segregated communities are evident there in the same degree as my current home in Dallas.  People spend more energy defending their position than searching for out of the box strategies to overcome the realities.  Excellent work as always by the ultimate outsider sticking his nose where they say it doesn't belong, Mr. Howard Witt.

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