Ferguson: Why Racism Is Still a National Disgrace

December 4, 2014 Updated: April 30, 2016
I wrote this before the Garner decision. As I publish this, NYC is overwhelmed with Christmas lights, and protesters over the latest unfathomable Grand Jury decision over the homicide of Eric Garner, father of six.  I watched the video of his death last night and I began to count how many times he said he could not breath. I got to 7 before starting to cry.  

“Way Down South Up North”

I grew up in the segregated north.  New Jersey to be exact. True, I was born after the civil rights act of 1964 was passed, but the centuries of racism and discrimination are still painfully visible. I can only imagine how hard things are in Ferguson Missouri today.

Just like I never appreciated the perspective of Native Americans in NJ on Thanksgiving until I learned about the Pavonia Massacre, I never understood the deep racism in Bergen County until I was already a Councilwoman in Tenafly.

To really understand the racism still present here, you need to read what I consider a book so important every school should have a copy and it should be required reading for every NJ schoolchild.  It is called Way Down South Up North.  It is a first hand account by Frederick E. Morrow that describes his childhood. He was the first African American man to serve in the White House in an official position as Dwight Eisehnower’s Administrative Officer for Special Projects.  Incredible because at the time he served, from 1955 to 1961 the Civil Rights Act had not yet been passed.

Morrow grew up in Hackensack NJ, and describes in great detail the racism present in Northern NJ during the early 20th century. It is an eye opening account to anyone raised in Bergen County completely oblivious to the history here which has since been virtually whitewashed.

I grew up in Bergenfield, a town that was nearly completely white, next to Teaneck, home to many African Americans and the very first town in America to voluntarily integrate its schools. Later I was Councilwoman in Tenafly, which also was virtually devoid of an African American community but next to diverse Englewood.  Growing up there, you always knew there seemed to be some weird dividing line that caused you to know exactly when you crossed a town border. I had one African American friend in my Catholic School, but it was because she lived in Teaneck and her wealthy dad wanted her to attend private Catholic school. Like most white kids, I never understood why, it just seemed that was just the way things were.  It was only after becoming friends with African American Council members from Teaneck and Englewood that my eyes were completely opened.  The civil rights law did not remove the bias and discrimination that real estate agents had used for centuries to basically corral African Americans in Bergen County and Northern NJ into just a few towns here.   Hackensack, Teaneck, Englewood, Paterson. You could name them off the top of your head because the racial makeup of each town in Bergen County was so distinct.

Few Choices

An ignorant white child like I was had absolutely no idea that the choice of Bergen County town was not an option for African Americans. Because we were not discriminated against in that way, white Americans are often completely ignorant of the reality for African Americans looking to buy or rent a home.  We simply don’t have that perspective.  I am often amazed at how little African American history is included in the standard versions of Bergen County History. The latest gala celebrating prominent residents only included one minority, a Native American chief who has been dead for centuries. I was kind of shocked and disappointed that they did not include even one African American, like Morrow. Bergen County may have been ruled by the Dutch and then the English, and then white Americans, but it was built by African American hands. Some of the earliest settlers in Bergen County were Dutch explorers and their wives, some of whom had come from the West Indies. Bergen County was integrated at its founding. Over time due to discrimination, mixed race and African settlers and freed slaves were pressured to move.  In addition, many slaves were held by wealthy farmers here that supplied food to a growing New York City.  Many of the African American families here can trace their origins back just as far as the white families so eager and proud to share their family history. But, for centuries, land deals in Bergen County for African Americans as well as the Lenape were often fraught and unfair.

I discovered my own neighborhood, built as one of those planned communities after WWII, had once been a black community surrounding a Baptist church. I always wondered why the cemetery I crossed though in my way home from school had absolutely no grave markers.  I always knew that the area near our house often flooded and was near a swamp.  Now it makes more sense to me.  It wasn’t desirable land to the Dutch Farmers, but it was what the former slaves were allowed to have.  In Alpine, there was a place known as Skunk Hollow where freed slaves developed a community. That history is nearly invisible to folks who pride themselves on knowing Bergen County history.  Their church still exists in Sparkill NY, just over the border.  Racism exists in remembering who was important here and who was not.

The history of the Baptist churches in Northern NJ, that white politicians often frequent for votes, can be directly linked to the history most white NJ residents would rather forget, the history of slavery. There is such a rich history here of the contributions of African Americans, but it is often swept to the side, just as the people themselves have been.

The KKK

The KKK make a very unwelcome appearance in Morrow’s book, as they were always here too.  It is easy to think that the KKK was mostly only in the “South”, but unfortunately, they were pretty much everywhere. And still are.  The group Anonymous recently outed a few who are now supposedly police officers in the US, last week. That thought made my blood run cold as I watched the unfolding tragedy in Ferguson and watched too many videos recently of white officers overreacting to African American men in tense situations.  Imagining a white supremacist, given a badge and gun and knowing they rarely ever go to jail for killing even an unarmed black man, made me want to immediately demand better background checks for anyone joining a police force.

Fear and Anger Share the Same Face

The language used by Darren Wilson made it clear he viewed Michael Brown as something other than human.  I couldn’t help but remember what my husband told me he learned from his Dad, a police officer.  Anger and fear look exactly the same. It is extremely difficult to tell the difference in a violent encounter.  Which makes not understanding the people you are policing also a huge problem.  What may have been fear on Michael Brown’s face, may have been perceived as anger by Wilson, and vice- versa. Which is why we need to train police officers not to behave like scared little boys when encountering a suspect.  They seem terrified these days and not even capable of keeping a level head. The workout equipment and ready availability of testosterone these days has me wondering too, about  “roid rage”.  The few young police officers I encountered recently seemed so damn angry.  Maybe it is the fear after 911, maybe it is simple arrogance because they often make more money than the average citizens in neighborhoods they are policing, but I don’t remember the police being this angry or scared before. I say this as the daughter-in-law of a wonderful man who was a police officer who retired before 9/11.

Some Light

Fortunately, in my town here, the police actively have programs and events to acquaint the children at an early age with police officers so they don’t fear them.  There is a game where the kids have to collect cards with the officers’ faces on them. The kids must talk to an officer to get a card from them and the children are encouraged to get as many cards as possible by getting to know the police force.  It is a simple cute thing, but it works. They even have camping out nights in town. Children need to not fear the police. But Police need to not fear the community either.  Which appears to be the biggest problem facing towns like Ferguson.

Whitewashed

More than a few things bothered me while being transfixed by the events in Ferguson.  The first was that folks on Twitter saying that there were more important stories than Ferguson. I vehemently disagree. We need to see this story. Especially white Americans.  We need to see the unvarnished truth. We have been living a literally whitewashed version of the American experience. We need to wash that paint off.

Location, Location, Location

Looking back, so much makes sense.  Years ago, when I was between jobs and living in a tiny studio apartment in Paterson, I remember getting called to temp jobs, most of which were absolutely horrible. It took me a moment to realize when I got to another awful job that my coworkers were African American, who were equally dismayed at the way we were treated there.  I realized that even though they could not ask us our race when they were choosing us, they could see our addresses. And right there was mine—Paterson.  It was a shock when I realized, that we were being given the worst assignments because it was assumed we were African American by our addresses.  I remember one time when I got to an assignment, my African American boss, looked shocked because I was white.  This was in the 90’s.  We are so not in a post racial world.  Overt discrimination is less visible, but covert discrimination is alive and well.  At these jobs, I would listen in horror as my coworkers would recount their day, talking about things at home, in their neighborhoods. I was appalled at how much crime they had to deal with on a day to day basis.  Things people in white neighborhoods don’t have to see or deal with and would never tolerate. It just wasn’t right.

To Protect and Serve

As I watched the unfolding events in Ferguson after the Grand Jury Decision, I was outraged all over again. The police were not doing their job.  They cared only about protecting their own station, while the parts of town where the fires were being set had no police presence.  I kept asking “Where are the fire trucks?” It almost seemed that the police wanted a fiery fear-filled photo op to grace the front pages to justify their behavior over these last few months.  The police never would have abandoned a white neighborhood like that.  What chilled me was the announcement timing—at night, which would have given cover to anyone who wanted to cause trouble, including any KKK members, who as rule, love to burn things.

Deep Wounds

I was not surprised when demonstrations erupted all over the country.  The wounds are deep and widespread.  Even as far north as New York and New Jersey. Even integrated Teaneck had its own riots over a white policeman shooting an African American teenager just a few decades ago. Our own Governor treats the people of Newark, where the riots of the 1960’s are still a living memory, as if they are incapable educating their own children, while Governors in the Midwest attempting to dilute the black vote, take over cities and remove their ability to govern themselves by instituting Emergency Managers.  There is now talk of doing that in predominantly black Atlantic City.   We don’t see the long lines on election day either. In white districts, I have only had one or two people ahead of me at the voting booth, at the most. That is not the case in towns with a large community of African Americans.  They have to wait hours with hundreds of folks ahead of them on line. Diverse Teaneck was also targeted by Republicans in the last redistricting to dilute their vote.  These things are no accident.

Justice Is Blind, But We Don’t Have to Be

It is only events like Ferguson that inconvenience white America enough to notice that to which we have had the luxury to be blind for centuries. We are not blind. Or we should not be any longer. To me, Ferguson, and Eric Garner’s homicide are the most important stories of the year. That is why they have touched off so much anguish and emotion from coast to coast.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.