The on-camera killing of George Floyd, the resulting national protests, and issues raised by some residents here in Chatham have led to some important and difficult conversations about race in our country, our state, and our town.
I cannot presume to imagine what it is like to be Black in America, or in Chatham. I have hugely appreciated hearing from Black residents about these issues and I encourage all my friends to keep listening, with an open mind, to those residents whose lived experience is different from their own.
Some found it helpful when, at a recent Borough Council meeting, I shared some of my own life experiences and how they affected me.
I am an openly gay, Puerto Rican man, 66 years young. I am white-skinned, so I’ve never suffered the humiliating experience of being pulled over while black. That said, I have seen my share of racism, taunting and discrimination in my life. I remember the instances I am about to relate as if they happened yesterday.
My late parents came to New Jersey from Puerto Rico. My dad came to Jersey City in 1946 with a third-grade education, $50 in his pocket and a dream. He became an upholsterer for 55 years. My mom had no education, came to Jersey City in 1947 and got her first job at the Dixon Crucible Company stuffing #2 leads into wooden pencils. Dad never earned more than $7,500 in his best earning year. We were on the food stamp program and lived in a run-down tenement in downtown Jersey City. Despite that, I had no idea we were “poor”. My dad would save $10 per week, no matter what.
In 1963, my dad answered an ad for a vacant apartment on 10th Street in Bayonne in a two-family house. I remember being dressed in our “Sunday Best” with my mom wearing her favorite blue coat and I was in a suit looking like a miniature adult. Upon hearing my dad’s heavily accented English, the landlady told him, “I’m sorry but the rooms were just taken”. Two weeks later, the newspaper ad had the apartment listed for rent. I recall my father sitting me down and explaining discrimination to me. We ended up in a tenement in Bayonne.
My dad decided to send my sister and me to Catholic School, so I went to St. Henry’s School starting in Grade 5. I was the only Hispanic in the class. Others would ask “what are you?” I knew what they were asking and I told them I was Italian because to say otherwise would invite taunts. I was able to go through to 8th grade with little incident.
It wasn’t until high school that my dad could not afford the tuition at the Catholic High School, so I went to Bayonne High School. The week before the first day of school, freshmen met with guidance counselors to be assigned to either college preparatory or vocational school. The guidance counselor asked me what I was. I told him I was Puerto Rican. He asked what my father did for a living and I told him he was an upholsterer. I was assigned vocational school. When I told him my dad wanted me in college prep, he said “you’re going to vocational”. I was in tears because I didn’t want to disappoint my father and I was the most unhandy person in the world. To my father’s credit, he took a day off from work the next day, went to the guidance counselor and told him “my son is going to college prep no matter what you say.” So, I was now in college prep.
High school was an experience I would never want to repeat. Being Puerto Rican I was continually taunted by choruses of “spic, roach-killer, pointy shoes, etc.” As a freshman, I developed an overactive thyroid which resulted in surgery. As a result, my hair became coarse and my eyes bulged. I was called “brillo head, googly eyes, frog eyes” and worse. For a sensitive kid, it was humiliating. I took to wearing sunglasses so others couldn’t see my eyes. Upon admitting to myself that I was “different” in that I was attracted to men, I was continually called a “fag, homo, queer, faggot, etc.”. I was beaten up over it and could not tell my parents because being gay in the Hispanic culture was, and is, completely frowned upon. At age 17, I decided there was no way out and I tried to take my life by overdosing on sleeping pills and alcohol. Through the grace of God, I pulled through after 4 days in ICU. I returned to school and ended up academically ranked 22nd out of a class of 1,056.
I went to Jersey City State College, today New Jersey City University. Even there, I saw discrimination front and center. In my sophomore year, my European History professor gave me an A+ on a term paper and on it he wrote “See Me”. I saw him and his comment was “You received the highest grade in the class, and for a Puerto Rican, you should be especially proud”. Obviously, a backhanded compliment meant with good intentions. But the message communicated to me was Puerto Ricans were not smart and I had “overachieved”.
When I got my first job at a major insurance company in 1974, I was part of the Management Trainee Program and was the 12th of 12 to be admitted. I was asked my nationality and I replied Puerto Rican, which satisfied the EEOC requirement for minorities in management positions. On the first day of work, each trainee introduced themselves. I went last. When my turn came, the General Manager said “Oh, you must be the token minority”. I handled it with humor and said yes; but I was dressed in a Jewish accountant’s suit because my friend’s Dad was an accountant who gave me a suit that fit. That’s how I learned I had been admitted as a Management Trainee due to “affirmative action”, not because I had a 3.84 grade point average. I resented that and the General Manager’s comment stung. To his everlasting credit, the General Manager did call me later in the day wanting to see me. I figured I’d be fired for using humor earlier in the day. He apologized for his insensitive remark and said it wouldn’t happen again, that I was a valued member of his team. He became a mentor and he just passed last month. I shall miss him.
Even moving to Chatham, I saw discrimination rear its head. Upon moving in, I had a friend of mine stripping wood as the Chatham Welcome Wagon came calling. One of the women remarked how carefully my friend was doing his work. I said he’s like that with everything. She put her hand on my arm and whispered, you’re so lucky, good help is hard to find. My blood boiled. I told her he’s my best friend and is not the help. They quickly left.
In 1998, the year before my dad passed, I took my parents to a nationally known appliance outlet on Route 10 in East Hanover to get them a new washing machine. In my dad’s heavily accented English, he told the salesman what type of machine they needed. Without missing a beat, the salesman said “these down here are more in your price range”. The salesman assumed that Dad was poor and couldn’t afford what he was looking for. I raised hell and wrote to the CEO. The salesman was terminated and my dad got a free washing machine of his choosing. The company did the right thing.
Racism is not always overt, but it involves things we’ve been taught. Even I, who have experienced so much racism and discrimination myself, have been guilty of it. My late dad would tell me that if I’m ever walking down the block and see two black teens coming, cross the street so they don’t hurt you. We weren’t allowed to the City Pool because “black children swam there”. As my dad got older, he realized he had done wrong and he uttered the words that today stick with me. “No matter the color of your skin, your sexuality, your creed, when we get cut, we all bleed red- that’s our common humanity.
How many of those who are in the majority have, without meaning to, looked twice at a Black person in a store or restaurant in a mostly white community, or held tighter onto a bag when a Black person entered an elevator in a building where most employees are white. Those who say “I don’t see race” are usually hiding their own unconscious bias. Until we recognize it, we can’t address it, and we as a society can’t heal the wounds from the unending beat of painful insults inflicted on those who are seen as “different.”
To those that say Chatham is an overtly racist community, I reject that proposition. But we and all cultures have elements of inherent racism that come from our upbringing and are difficult to recognize, unless and until someone calls us out on it.
The societal reckoning we have been facing following George Floyd’s death earlier this year made me realize that we should not be afraid to admit being inherently racist. Name it, confront it and do something about it.
Len Resto is a current Chatham Borough Council Member and Candidate for his 4th term on the Council.