Monday, July 23, 2007

Looking Back

In 1967, I was a housewife living in bucolic Passaic Township, dealing with an unraveling marriage and a child with special needs. Neither the Summer of Love nor the civil disturbances in Newark and Plainfield were on my radar as I struggled with matters at home.

Twenty years later, I was living in Plainfield and writing about the city.
I came to know both the pride and the pain of longtime residents who had stayed on after the riots. There were so many losses. People clung to memories of a vibrant downtown district, excellent schools, an economy buoyed by a sound commercial and industrial base. Black power had brought about political change, but not much else. Black and white societies that had thrived separately found that integration was more of a notion than a nostrum for the city’s troubles. Wealth had gone west, transforming the hills and dales of Somerset County into urban sprawl.

Twenty more years later, many old-timers and newcomers alike praise the city’s diversity. Owners of the city’s stately homes are black, white, Latino, gay, East Indian, Caribbean and more. The central business district is starting to pick up, but the city has mainly just its housing stock to tap for tax revenue. Student performance remains below state standards. Poverty and unemployment persist even while nearly all lucrative top city posts are held by African-Americans. But generally, people get along and enjoy life in Plainfield while trying to work on its problems.

Is life better or worse 40 years after what happened in July 1967?

It’s different. It’s a lot more complicated. Literally, it’s no longer just a black and white situation. Some older African-Americans feel they haven’t gotten their just due and now never will. Despite language barriers, many immigrants have overcome economic barriers that still impede blacks. Young people may neither understand nor honor the civil rights struggles of the 1960s. For every sign of progress, there is an indicator of more to be done.

In 2002, I had to do a 35-year retrospective on the riots. By then, I knew the city and its people very well. The interviewees spoke plainly about race relations and nothing they said surprised me, because by then I had heard it all before, in public meetings and private conversations. But some of the comments sure startled several readers, mostly white, who were surprised at the level of militancy expressed. The black activist perspective was so radically different from the white middle class outlook that it only served to show that the racial divide has yet to be bridged.

I don’t know how to conclude this memoir. After days of trying, all I can say is that complete understanding is possible, but not yet probable among black and white. For every person who is color-blind there seems to be another who sees an unbridgeable gap between those with “white privilege” and those with “post-traumatic slave disorder,” to use Dr. Joy Leary’s term. The added layers of ethnicity require even more understanding.

At one time, I decided that all of Plainfield could be split into people of good will and those of ill will, regardless of any other identifiers. Until the general good will increases, it’s likely that social malaise will continue to mar city life. And maybe that’s my last word.

--Bernice Paglia


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