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Bringing it all back home

Can the energy that drove people to Jena, La., be used here at home?

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The recent outpouring of enthusiasm for the Jena 6 arguably was the largest display of activism Charlotte had seen in recent history. Hundreds of Charlotte-area residents journeyed more than 500 miles on Sept. 19 by bus and by car to Jena, La., where six black teens are facing jail time for beating up a white student after a series of racially charged incidents.

A 27-year-old Pineville woman, Tamara Allen, chartered five buses after seats on the first, and then the third, sold out quickly. Churches, colleges and community groups organized trips. Even those who couldn't make the trek poured into church pews and waved signs on street corners. And in an unpublicized visit Sept. 16, the Rev. Jesse Jackson spoke about Jena at St. Paul Missionary Baptist Church, the church confirmed.

What remains to be seen is whether that enthusiasm can fuel action at home. Several activists, both black and white, say they're hopeful. The Rev. James Barnett of Stop the Killing has a pessimistic view but says the community has to remember the Jena 6 spirit as it confronts local problems.

"When it's white on black [crime], we can really rally," Barnett says. "We've got to use that same kind of energy that we used in Jena locally.

"The fact of the matter is," Barnett continues, "it could have been six black youths dying at the hands of other blacks, and we couldn't have got a van filled, let alone buses, to go there."

In part, Jena struck an emotional chord with many African-Americans because of worries of how the justice system treats black youths. "Most of us do have children of the same age as those young men in Jena," says Richard K. Harrison, president of the resident association at McCreesh Place, a service by St. Peter's homes that provides supportive housing that's mostly for formerly homeless men on disability. "There's a definite connection -- we want to ensure that our children are given equal treatment under the law."

But absent a rallying cause like Jena, Charlotte still has many problems that beg for local action. It's not just black-on-black crime, though a quick glance at crime statistics show the severity of the problem. Harrison -- himself a child of the Civil Rights Movement whose uncle, Willard Williams, was a known friend of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. -- notes a majority of McCreesh Place's formerly homeless residents are African-American, and advocates for the homeless note they serve a predominantly black population.

Recent estimates indicate more than 5,000 people in Mecklenburg County lack permanent housing. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools say 2,208 children this year are either in shelters, "doubled up" in relatives homes, living in substandard or condemned housing, or living on the streets. That's a 20 percent increase from last year. The Mecklenburg County jail, in a recent count, reported a 24 percent increase in the number of homeless inmates in the past year. Those 609 inmates jailed July 26 represented more than one-fifth of the jail's population.

And a majority of these homeless folks are black. The July homelessness count didn't measure race, but a 2000 study found 67 percent of folks in shelters were black. Similar patterns hold true today, says Liz Clasen of the Urban Ministry Center.

Could local concern about the Jena 6 focus on that? Clasen says she's encouraged: "I think it's important to keep that momentum going on very tangible issues locally and nationally."

In the schools, black students have obstacles, too. Black CMS students lag behind white students in graduation rates. About 25 percent of all CMS students who entered ninth grade in 2003 didn't get a diploma four years later. But at West Mecklenburg High School, where more than 60 percent of students are African-American, 40 percent of students didn't graduate. Graduation rates are notoriously fuzzy -- if not obfuscatory -- numbers, but by any standard that's troubling.

In real estate, blacks face obstacles. African-Americans in Charlotte still pay more for mortgage loans than whites, even among homebuyers with higher income, according to a study released in July by the National Community Reinvestment Coalition. That study didn't take into account borrowers debt and down payment amounts, but other studies that did have found similar results.

Barnett says Charlotte has to focus on reducing crime -- not just hate crimes. "There has never been a mass rally anywhere to deal with so-called black-on-black crime. We have accepted it, and we send the message to outsiders that it's OK for blacks to kill blacks."

Jena 6 has fueled a lot of discussion on race. So far, much of the discussion has hinged on the merits of the arguments made by Jena 6 supporters or LaSalle Parish District Attorney Reed Walters. Harrison and others hope it turns to the root issues. "Race underlies a lot of problems in this country that just aren't talked about," says Harrison. "It's time to start talking about them."

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