I grew up in New Jersey when Newark, Plainfield and other cities experienced rioting and later became a proofreader and reporter for The Star-Ledger (1978-1983), for which I covered Newark and Plainfield.
The demise of Newark as a city has always intrigued and concerned me. I come back to Jersey a few times to see how things are going, and actually, things are going in the right direction it would seem.
I also have served in local elected office in the Town of Leesburg, VA, and an old traditional town much like the traditional towns I covered in North Jersey. I like to see traditional towns and cities (like mine) thrive.
In looking back to the 50th anniversary of the Newark riots as this site and other media have done, I find there is something missing in the coverage – namely, how the civil disorders, particularly the deadly ones in the ”long hot summer” of 1967 reshaped our country, its politics and where we live and work. I am not an “expert,” just an observer. Here are just a few observations as I look back 50 years:
Newark had about 400,000 residents at the time of the ‘67 riots, and had a white population of about 50%, which was dwindling. Today, Newark has about 280,579 residents, which actually represents an increase from the 2000 census, and is about 26% non-Hispanic white. In the 1970s and 80s, the city was giving homes away for nearly nothing.
The amount of population that moved out of American cities following the period of the race riots is staggering. A Detroit TV station reported recently that immediately after the riots White flight was frantic. “Sixty-seven-thousand people fled in the summer following the uprising, 80,000 more the following year.” Add up the numbers in Newark, Cleveland and other cities rocked by riots and you can see that the riots were not just about 26 who were killed, but about a significant change in our living patters. I would guess the national numbers are in the millions.
African-Americans gained political power in the cities, but with whites departing, so did business (notably, retailers), jobs and a tax base. This left major urban areas in a fiscal crisis in the 1970s with heavy dependence on federal and state aid and government-initiated programs, much of which was not very successful in my view.
Whites who left cities became resentful about “losing” their old communities, especially blue collar whites. They started voting increasingly Republican, or for conservative Democrats like George Wallace. These folks became the “Reagan Democrats” of the 1980s and “Trump voters” of 2016. Deindustrialization led to millions of Americans moving to The Sun Belt, too.
While the number of black office holders jumped and grew in influence in the Democratic Party, culminating in the historic election of Barack Obama in 2008, their ability to get realistic economic growth for their communities dwindled, as Republicans moved to the far right and Democrats to the far left. The consensus was not there. Key African-American groups also started to be led by more aggressive and polarizing leaders (i.e. Ben Chavis at the NAACP and Louis Farrakhan, Nation of Islam).
The loss of jobs and middle class residents created a bigger “black underclass” in the cities and with that an increased drug trade and gang violence. Despite welfare reform in the 1990s, young women who come from broken homes and are led by a single mother have a good chance of getting pregnant out of wedlock and becoming a ward of the state. If you’re male in the same situation, you may join a gang or get involved in the illicit drug trade and wind up a victim of a shooting.
“Black flight” became the norm in the 1990s and cities started to eye gentrification, concert halls, new convention centers and minor league baseball stadiums as a means to bring life back to their urban core. These efforts did not really help the black underclass that much.
Both parties ignored the cities in the 1980s and looked more to policies favoring suburban voters, for example, the “soccer moms” that propelled Bill Clinton into the White House twice. As a result, by the 1990 census, most of the nation’s population lived in suburbs, not cities.
Despite the rhetoric about race relations the last few years, one could not argue that blacks, whites, Latinos and others in the middle class live quite harmoniously and integrated in today’s suburbs. What divides the nation today is politics.
While the suburbs have become more racially mixed and are largely harmonious places to live, the reality is that much of the urban underclass -- not just in the cities, but in rural America like Coal Country -- has largely been ignored by our ever growing middle and upper classes.
We have become indifferent to the problems of the inner cities and feel that throwing money at it or using government action is the solution. It sort of gets the guilt off our backs while we invest our money in the ‘burbs or overseas.
How do we end indifference? Well first, I would hope President Trump would make good on his campaign promise to restore our urban areas.Trump has held a number of weekly issue-based press conferences and media events -- ”infrastructure week” ”energy week” “border security week.” When will be see “urban revitalization” week?
We can look to Trump or other government leaders for answers, but what the cities lost due to the riots was their economic vitality and tax base. Blacks gained political power only to see economic power dwindle. Thankfully, Newark seems to be rebounding due in large part because millennials and developers see good cheap land and building deals there. The free market is working.
And that is a good thing as we look back on the 50th anniversary of those seminal events in 1967.
Ken Reid grew up in Princeton and graduated from Rutgers University in 1980. He was a proofreader and reporter for The Star-Ledger (1978-1983) and has lived in the Washington D.C., area since 1986. In 2006, he was elected to local government office in the Town of Leesburg, VA, and has a background in planning and economic development and a great interest in seeing U.S. cities revived (primarily Newark).