PORTLAND, Ore. (TheStreet) -- Spend enough time amid casual, culturally ingrained racism and it becomes clear that it doesn't divide along clean political lines.
When news broke last week of a recording featuring Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling telling his mistress not to have her photo taken with black people and not to bring her black friends to games, Mother Jones pointed out that Sterling was a registered Republican. While the NBA banned him from the league for life for the outburst -- which was relatively tame compared to the racially motivated housing discrimination he'd been fined for in previous years -- his party affiliation was likely the least relevant detail of his story. Racism doesn't have a party affiliation.
In my hometown of Belleville, N.J., is a neighborhood known as Silver Lake. Shared with the neighboring town of Bloomfield, Silver Lake is a community of roughly 4,000 people and 1,600 households housing a population that is nearly 50% Latino and 10% black. It is also, however, directly adjacent to Newark's First Ward and has a subset of the population that shares that neighborhood's Italian heritage.
Italian flags fly beneath the Stars and Stripes on neighborhoods lawns. Grandparents dance to Sinatra songs at birthday parties and wedding receptions at the Knights of Columbus hall behind Clara Maass hospital while their kids pump fists to electronic dance music at their graduation and confirmation parties. It is an insular community apart from the rest of Bloomfield and Belleville that's comfortable in its solitude and addresses its neighbors like family -- because many of them are.
It's a place where speaking freely and loudly is a fact of life, but where the content of that conversation is limited to one extremely narrow context. It's a place where things are said, and where Councilwoman and mayoral hopeful Marie Strumolo-Burke learned firsthand that some of those utterances no longer fly with the population at large -- never mind with some of the newer neighbors.
Strumolo-Burke ran in a nonpartisan race, but freely identifies as a Democrat and ran with the support of Essex County Democrats. She lost her mayoral race by roughly 300 votes in an election in which little more than 4,000 of the town's roughly 20,000 registered voters cast a ballot, but it was the way she lost that drew national attention. Weeks before the election, a recording surfaced featuring a woman's voice allegedly belonging to Strumolo-Burke responding to news about a change in township tax rates as her colleague left a voicemail on another Belleville politician's answering machine.
Strumolo-Burke denied saying it, but Primeau Forensics Lab in Michigan declared that it was "85 percent" sure the voice was Burke's after comparing the recording to comments she made at town council meetings. No legal action followed and her challenger -- incumbent Ray Kimble, who was given the tape in October and made it public -- called for her censure and removal from the council. While Strumolo-Burke will retain her council seat until 2016, the tape likely ended her mayoral hopes. Still, constituents in her Sliver Lake ward voted 580 to 323 in her favor.
In a year when Nevada rancher and Republican/Libertarian lightning rod started a sentence and ended his days as a folk hero with "Let me tell you something about the negro" and Sterling's racist rants, nefarious housing practices and NAACP awards became a political ping-pong ball, Strumolo-Burke was held up as an example of Blue State racism shrouded in nonpartisan politics. Frankly, we're not so sure what that proves.
In Strumolo-Burke's neck of New Jersey, racism isn't as much about what party you're in as it is about where you're voting. Silver Lake and Newark's North Ward held a unique perspective on the decline that led to the Newark rebellion/riots in 1967. Their Italian-American citizens saw 15 blocks of the largely Italian-American First Ward leveled for the oversized, poorly constructed and perpetually neglected Columbus Homes housing projects. The few remaining portions of that neighborhood around St. Lucy's Church were plowed under for Interstate 280, a bypass to well-heeled suburbs including West Orange, Livingston, Roseland and Parsippany.
In 1967, they saw National Guard troops and equipment use Newark Stadium on Bloomfield Avenue as a staging area and local business owner Anthony Imperiale form the North Ward Citizens Committee that patrolled the outskirts of their neighborhood with baseball bats targeting minorities in fear that unrest would spread into their neighborhood. Imperiale's actual take on it at the time: "When the Black Panther comes, the white hunter will be waiting."
The area was forever stamped with an "us vs. them" mentality that viewed outsiders -- particularly those of color -- as interlopers trying to take what they had. From their doorsteps, they saw Newark's white population drop from 363,000 to 266,000 in the 1950s alone as the Federal Housing Authority redlined Newark and stopped approving mortgages and improvement loans there. By the time the Newark riots/rebellion took place in 1967, the city's white population had dwindled to just 46,000. In a decade, the population had shifted from two-thirds white to two-thirds black.
Residents of North Newark and Silver Lake saw those highways built straight through other neighborhoods take their neighbors clear out of town. The residents of Italian heritage who remain see themselves as holdouts and see plates of chicken murphy at the Belmont Tavern or cold Buds at the Crossing Inn as their spoils. They also view with skepticism new developments like an expanded light rail line to Newark's Penn Station and the new residents such amenities bring. And the old mentalities, and older slurs, occasionally surface during basement parties and nights at the pub when there's no one else around. It doesn't mean that Strumolo-Burke actually said those things in the recording: It just makes such a scenario plausible to many folks in New Jersey.
But who's to blame for all of this? Well, you could start with a fellow Italian-American and Democrat -- former Newark Mayor Hugh Addonizio. His grabs for federal money made Columbus Homes possible, demolished the predominantly black Central Ward for a medical school and set into motion the "blockbusting" practices that stoked racial tension and preyed on fear. By pushing longtime city residents out and shoving its poorest into poorly maintained piles in neglected corners of the map, Addonizo made the 1967 unrest possible. Late poet Amiri Baraka, who attended predominantly Italian-American Barringer High, gets a share of the blame in the North Ward and Silver Lake, which makes his son Ras Baraka's recent election as Newark mayor a sore subject in those same circles that reignites some of those same fears.
That's not just a story from some corner of New Jersey: It's the story of more of us than we'd like to admit. It's a story that has parallels in Detroit, Atlanta, Washington, Boston, Oakland, Baltimore, New York, Cincinnati, Seattle, Cleveland and, yes, Sterling's Los Angeles. It's at the root of urban and suburban politics in states both Red and Blue and at the core of what's brought us to this point as a society.
We can continue to keep score of which member of what political party says what, or we can get down to both enforcing the consequences of those actions and addressing the root of the problem. When suburbanites view a black presence in their neighborhood as crime and urbanites see white interest in their neighborhood as immediate gentrification, we're not getting anywhere -- and we're going to hear a lot more terrible things from representatives on all sides in the meantime.
-- Written by Jason Notte in Portland, Ore.
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