Confronting Racism, Coming Together

Racist incidents remain a fact of New Jersey life. Here’s how some communities are trying to bring people together.

Kevin Martin revisits the Maplewood street where he was questioned by police after a shopowner reported suspicious activity.
Kevin Martin revisits the Maplewood street where he was questioned by police after a shopowner reported suspicious activity.
Photo by Chad Hunt

It was a brisk March evening, and documentary filmmaker Kevin Martin had arrived early at the Cedar Ridge Café in Maplewood, where he was to shoot a performance by a stand-up comedian. Too cold to wait in his car, Martin got out to shoot some footage of the cafe’s exterior. He noticed a nearby store owner standing by her window, making a phone call. Minutes later, two police cars pulled up, responding to a report of suspicious activity.

The store owner was white; Martin was black. The police questioned Martin, then left the scene. Later, Martin posted about the incident online, so other people of color might avoid similar experiences, or keep their cool if they could not.

Several hundred responses later, Martin, 35, was disheartened.

“No one was listening to anybody,” he tells New Jersey Monthly. “Society dies on those threads.”

Martin grew up in Maplewood and knows the town values its diversity. He has no animosity for the shopkeeper, who says race had nothing to do with her call.

“A lot of black folks were surprised at how I handled it,” he says of his lack of anger.

Martin’s experience is hardly an isolated case. In February, Mendham Township deputy mayor Rick Blood posted another person’s pro-Trump rant on his Facebook page, comparing immigrants to rabid raccoons that need to be exterminated. He stepped down after more than two dozen residents protested at a township committee meeting.

In March, someone placed a sign outside the Flemington Post Office reading, “March is national stop blaming white people month! Accept responsibility for your own bad choices. Hug a white person!” The sign was quickly removed. Three years earlier, a Flemington deli owner had posted a sign in uppercase letters that read: “Celebrate your white heritage in March: White History Month.” When a patron complained, the owner removed the sign and apologized.

In April, staff at L.A. Fitness in Secaucus asked two black men—a club member and his guest—to leave, accusing them of not paying properly, and called police when the men did not comply. The officers escorted the men from the property, but no arrests were made.

According to newspaper reports, the gym banned one of the men from the club and revoked the other’s membership. The three employees involved are no longer employed there, according to a company spokeswoman.

And in May, several minors were apprehended after writing a racial epithet on a Scotch Plains school playground. The mayor and police chief publicly condemned the behavior and said the police, prosecutor’s office and school board were looking into the case. A few days later, the mayor-elect of Paterson, Andre Sayegh, a Catholic Arab-American, denounced campaign flyers distributed by some of his supporters that used homophobic and racist terms against other local politicians.

What’s behind this string of racial confrontations? Jeff Wilhelms, vice president of the Toms River Area NAACP, thinks racism has gotten worse since the 2016 election. “It’s now okay for the President to say indecent things about all kinds of people,” says Wilhelms. “So now people feel like they can voice, maybe, their true feelings a little more than before.”

Whatever the cause, a number of New Jersey communities and individuals are trying to reverse the trend, forming organizations and holding gatherings that seek to create conversations about race and racism.

New Jersey has long prided itself as a melting pot—a place where diverse groups can find a home. As of 2016, 57 percent of the state’s population was white, 18 percent Hispanic, 13 percent black and 11 percent Asian, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. But diversity has its dark side. New Jersey is ninth in hate crimes per capita, and the state police reported a 14 percent increase in such crimes from 2015 to 2016.

Marta Esquilin, a diversity consultant and an associate dean at Rutgers-Newark, shares some of the stark differences between the races. Median household income is $80,800 for whites, $46,800 for blacks. While 45 percent of youths arrested are black, yet 67 percent of those in juvenile detention are black. Sixty-three percent of white eighth-graders passed the state’s standardized PARCC test in 2015-16, compared to 34 percent of black ones.

Against this background, conversations about race are often uncomfortable, says Esquilin. Part of the issue is that many well-meaning white people assert that they are color blind—but can’t really understand what reality looks like for people of color.

“Color blindness is a barrier,” says Esquilin, who is Afro-Latina. “It ignores the experiences of what it means to live in a body that has dark skin. I want you to understand, I’m experiencing the world in a way that treats me in all these kinds of violent ways, physically and emotionally.”

Still, conversations about race are essential. Here’s what’s been happening in a number of New Jersey communities:

Fanwood/Scotch Plains (Union County)
The sheet of paper declared, “Enough is Enough! Stop Minority (Non-White) Crime Now!” and used false figures to support its claim that blacks were more likely to commit hate crimes.
Leland McGee, president of Social Justice Matters, remembers when a friend faxed the document to him, spurring the creation of the group in 2009.

“I can’t tell you what went through my mind, but I can tell you it probably felt a lot like what I felt like when I saw those two guys arrested in Starbucks: Is it ever going to stop? What is it going to take?” McGee was referring to the widely reported arrest in Philadelphia of two black men who were waiting for a friend in a Starbucks.

Members of Social Justice Matters commit to taking action. Some work with the Black Student Union at the Scotch Plains-Fanwood schools. Others conduct practice job interviews or offer college-essay help at the YMCAs in Plainfield and Westfield.

McGee worries about preaching to the choir. It’s one thing to work with people already committed to fighting racism. It’s another to engage people who are hesitant to enter a dialog about race. To that end, Social Justice Matters hosts lectures, book discussions and similar events to kick-start the conversation.

Hunterdon County
In October 2016 in Flemington, after residents and town authorities painted a blue line down Main Street in support of local police, an arts group using a town building put a Black Lives Matter sign in its window. When residents complained, the group, Flemington DIY, took the sign down, and held a two-hour forum about the issue, attended by 100 people. Subsequently, members of the Hunterdon County Anti-Racism Coalition urged their hometowns to pass anti-racism resolutions; Flemington passed one a year later.

At the forum, some minority residents in the state’s second whitest county spoke about being followed and made to feel unwelcome in Flemington.

“It was important for us to keep in mind that the burden should not be on people of color to teach white people about racism,” says Karen Gaffney, a white member of the coalition’s steering committee and author of Dismantling the Racism Machine: A Manual and Toolbox (Routledge, 2017).

Montclair (Essex County)
The Anti-Racist Alliance of North Jersey, formed nine years ago in Montclair, grew out of Undoing Racism training that began at the Unitarian Universalist church in 1994. Each year, the group sponsors two or three multiday trainings. So far, 1,250 people have participated, including the town’s public school teachers. The alliance, has also helped organize grants to provide the training for groups from the Essex County court system and the Greater Newark Healthcare Coalition. Similar alliances meet in Florham Park and Highland Park, growing out of the original Anti-Racist Alliance in New York City.

Princeton (Mercer County)
In 2015, Not in Our Town Princeton joined the local YMCA in a campaign to encourage merchants to post signs saying, “We are standing against racism today and every day.”

“For me it was a safe zone for people to shop and not have to worry about being treated as other,” says Princess Hoagland, co-chair of the group, which grew out of church groups wanting a continuing dialog on race. The conversation now takes place at 7 pm the first Monday of every month at the Princeton Public Library.

“I believe I can contribute to abolishing racism during my lifetime,” says Hoagland. “It can be done, but we have to change some habits and perceptions of how we see ourselves and how we label ourselves.”

South Orange/Maplewood (Essex County)
In Kevin Martin’s town, the South Orange/Maplewood Community Coalition on Race held one of its regular meetings to address the specifics of discussing racial concerns online. Suggestions included privately messaging the individual, leading with your own experience, and, trying to have the conversation in person, as nuance and emotion are hard to express online. The overall atmosphere of the gathering was upbeat and welcoming.

The challenges are not new. In July 2016, Maplewood police tried to move a group of reportedly rowdy young people, many of whom were black, into neighboring Irvington, as if they weren’t Maplewood residents. Four youths were arrested in the fray, which occurred after a fourth of July fireworks display. Police were videotaped kicking and punching some of the teens. The incident resulted in a federal lawsuit, the forced retirement of the police chief and a captain, and the punishment of six officers. Another federal suit against the South Orange/Maplewood school district and other parties attempts to address a long-standing achievement gap and differences in discipline for white and minority students. Both suits are pending, but in May, the school district announced an integration plan realigning all but one of its schools.

The coalition has numerous other initiatives. It provides town tours for prospective homebuyers and new teachers, offers seminars on talking to children about race, and tracks demographic changes. It recently issued a report showing both South Orange and Maplewood becoming whiter as houses become more expensive.

Three years ago, Keli Tianga, a mom, started the coalition’s monthly integrated playgroups, in which up to 20 to 30 parents and children under age six gather at a local preschool to encouraging interracial friendships. She invites families to bring guests of a race different from their own.

“It’s getting it out of the way at the very beginning of a conversation,” says Tianga. “Everyone relaxes a bit, so race is something we can feel comfortable discussing in this space, not tiptoeing around.”

Some members of the Saturday group have become full-time friends.

“Misconceptions about people’s values and people’s intelligence,” says Tianga, “can be confronted when you have people right in your home, your dinner table, your barbecue, talking about things that you talk about and you value, and understanding that those things are not different across racial or ethnic lines.”

Tina Kelley is a frequent contributor to New Jersey Monthly.

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