Last week I had the privilege of attending the vigil held in Maplewood in support of the residents of Charlottesville who were victimized by racist, anti-Semitic, homophobic and misogynistic hate groups. This hate resulted in the death of a courageous woman who fought by word and deed for the rights of those who, while they did not look like her, were from the same family: the human family. I commend the organizers of the vigil who brought together many residents from South Orange and Maplewood (and neighboring communities) on short notice, demonstrating again why our two towns are indeed special places to live.
As I noted at the vigil, the fight for equality and justice is personal: I frequently encounter racism, and it is not from the kkk, neo-nazis, or the alt-right but “good and decent” folk. (I remind you that 64% of white men and 52% per cent of white women voted for our current president and hate rallies took place in Boston as well as Charlottesville). I make these points because one of the core missions of the Coalition has been to advocate and to provide the opportunities for candid and frank discussions about race so that we can move beyond the vestiges of this country’s “original sin” that continue to haunt this great nation of ours.
The History of The Coalition and SOMa’s White Flight
As a resident of Maplewood for over twenty-five years, the ugly events in Charlottesville and the focus on race relations harkened me back to the founding of the Community Coalition on Race which was formed by concerned and committed residents in response to a perceived decline in the standing of the communities primarily due to white flight. The sell-off of residential properties was due to a perception that our towns were becoming too black and brown and, as one white resident was overheard by me to say, in an “irreversible downward spiral.” These residents--black, brown and white and from a variety of backgrounds--defiantly pushed back and, with the help of our governing bodies, devised and implemented intentional strategies to counter-attack the negativity about our towns that was fueled by racial ignorance.
In its formative days, there were three primary areas of focus for the Coalition: the schools, real estate, and promoting candid conversations on race. It was agreed that we would work with haste to have regular, candid dialogue on race-related issues, diversify our neighborhoods to stem declining real estate values, and to attack the inequities faced by children of color in the school district.
The Coalition on Race has played a critical and important role in the change of fortune in these communities, often in the face of extreme opposition: we have taken very public positions on race that have resulted in criticism for being too strident or against the politics of the time; we were in the forefront of those advocating for de-leveling in the schools; we have continually denounced the achievement gap and worked to develop solutions; we organized forums resulting in candid and constructive dialogues on race; we brought to the fore concerns about the changing demographics in our communities which have resulted in a significant drop in the numbers of residents of color; we highlighted the disturbing trends of segregation in our elementary schools, and have continued to speak out on the needs to address inequities in our schools as well as the need for reforms in our police departments.
For Many Persons of Color the Quest for True Equality and Inclusion Remains Elusive
While we have much to be proud of over the years regarding our community’s efforts to promote racial integration, for many persons of color the quest for true equality and inclusion remains elusive. As we fast forward to 2017, the community has succeeded in promoting the values of diversity and reversing the decline in real estate values; Maplewood and South Orange are now two of the most desirable communities to live in the tristate area. We have brought many race-related issues to light. Although we have helped to prepare the way for changes in the schools, the promise of a truly equitable education for children of color has not been met. Problems that existed in the 1990’s remain today, including the racial achievement gap, disproportionality in student discipline, and educational equity.
In addition, we must acknowledge the lack of representation of persons of color in our governing bodies, police and fire departments, school district, and business organizations, despite our efforts to promote civic engagement and diversity in hiring. For persons of color to feel not just tolerated but accepted as equals we must have access to influence and the ability to participate in decisions that impact our community. The July 2016 incident involving Black youth and the Maplewood police has put a spotlight on an issue that has pained many for years: the biased treatment of people of color in the criminal justice system. With this in mind, I officially request that the Maplewood Township Committee make it a top priority to select a person of color for our next Chief of Police as many such qualified and competent candidates exist.
We All Have a Role to Play Given the Enormous Amount of Work to Do
While the current state of affairs can leave one in a state of deep despair, I remain optimistic that better days ahead are possible given the sacrifices of many black, brown and white persons to ensure that residents have been afforded the rights and protections that our Constitution provides. It is not enough to condemn overt racism and other acts of hate but we must use the same vigor to confront systematic racism. Moreover, those who have been and continue to be the beneficiaries of privilege due solely to the color of their skin must challenge white privilege in all the ways they can. This means confronting those people at home, in the community, the workplace, media or those businesses who benefit from racism directly or indirectly and demanding real change. Only in this way will we attain a society where all individuals, regardless of their background, are enabled to reach their full potential and achieve a status where all are welcomed at the table.
We must realize that we are truly all in this together both nationally and locally. As to the threat of unchecked hate, it is worth noting the words of Germany’s current Foreign Minister: “We have seen what happens when you fail to rein in right wing extremists.” Locally, recent events evidence that what many have worked hard over the years to build with regard to reputation and stability can crumble instantly unless all residents work diligently to ensure the long-term viability of our two towns.
We look forward to working with the many fine organizations and faith-based groups in this community, old and new, as we all have a role to play given the enormous amount of work to do to ensure that we serve as true role model for change. I invite you to make the Community Coalition on Race a better organization; we welcome all constructive input and invite you join us on this challenging but attainable quest for a better tomorrow for all!
Robert A. Marchman
Chair, Board of Trustees
South Orange/Maplewood Community Coalition on Race