Racism Flares Again in Jasper–But Against Whom?

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The firing of Jasper’s first black police chief, only a year after his appointment, has brought race tensions to the fore again, and residents are scared.

In June of 1998, three white supremacists in Jasper, dragged James Byrd Jr. behind a pickup truck until his head came off.

Thirteen years later, the city council, which at the time had four black council members and one white, named Rodney Pearson Jasper’s first black police chief. While the town was 46 percent white and 44 percent black, the police force had always been vastly white. Grumbles at the time suggested the pick was racially motivated and that Pearson, who had been Jasper’s first black highway patrolman, was unqualified. Three white candidates sued the city for “reverse discrimination.” Others pointed to the fact that Pearson, when he was 21, had been convicted of a class C misdemeanor for writing a hot check worth less than $20, which he neglected to mention on his application. (This is what conservative outlets claim is Pearson’s main disqualification.)

But Pearson hung on to his post—until now. In the year since Pearson’s appointment, white residents in Jasper organized the city’s first-ever recall election, (in which voter fraud was alleged) ousting three of the four black councilmembers and replacing them with whites, so that now the council’s balance is 4/5 white.

Last night, Pearson was fired. The reason? Job performance, they say, specifically that he allegedly took four unauthorized vacation days. The council is meeting today to discuss the firing. Council members swear up and down that his race is not the reason for the dismissal.

A white Jasper resident, who asked not to be named, told Dateline Houston that the Black Panthers are on their way to the city and that she fears the KKK will also come and there may be violence. “Regardless of what groups come, this is a big deal,” she says. “The white people are saying, ‘This isn’t about race at all!’ But it so obviously is.”

“When it has anything to do with racism, people get really angry. And when people get angry, they get stupid.” She adds, “We’re just going to stay in our house for a few days.”

We’ll keep you posted. 

Emily DePrang is a staff writer at The Texas Observer where she covers criminal justice and public health. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic and Salon.com, and she’s a former nonfiction editor of the Sonora Review. She’s holds an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from the University of Arizona and a B.A. from the University of Texas at Austin. In 2013, she was a National Health Journalism Fellow; in 2012 she won the Sigma Delta Chi award for public service in magazine journalism.