As residents and others think back 40 years to the collapse of civil order in Newark there will be many accounts of what happened to sort through and consider. We will be watching carefully for signals of solution oriented thinking and planning. More than anything that is what we need. In the meantime it seems useful to pick up on an important point that has not yet been emphasized in what we have read about the 1967 event.
At least one account of events in July 1967 traces the root causes back to decades before 1967. Brad Parks in his first installment (one of four) talks about social and policy patterns that shaped Newark long before the riots as predictors of the ultimate calamity. It is an interesting thought, though somewhat incomplete. We would offer that the ghetto that was Black Newark had once been inhabited by White people for many years and, so far as we know, was riot free. And it is important to examine and understand some of the circumstances that might account for the difference.
No matter what changes took place in Newark—policy, indigenous population shifts or otherwise—there was one essential change that did not take place upon which the maintenance of order might well have rested. The control of property and wealth never transferred to Black people when we became the major tenants and consumers in our communities. Unlike the residents before us we owned neither the businesses nor the property in our neighborhoods. It is reasonable to assume that were it otherwise we might have built a sustainable community life on a sound economic base.
Through decades of exploitation we did a pretty good job of maintaining our balance as we worked to educate our children and look for a way out of stifling conditions. Poor pockets and rich hearts were everywhere. There was a sense of community. Inspirational role models surrounded us, and hard work was honored. We were, after all, in the same stew—a neighborhood where haves and have-nots paid little attention to their differences. But the natural desire to do better for one and one’s children was a powerful motivation for those who could afford to move on. And never being heavily indoctrinated with an entrepreneurial outlook, professional life was the overwhelming choice for educated Blacks. By and large we did not seek to control the dispensation of goods and services in our own community. We chose to move away and establish ourselves among those with similar economic where-with-all and closer class resemblances.
Crippling social decay was not immediate, but irreversible erosion began close on the heels of the Black elite quitting the ghetto. Every system that served the Black community suffered as a result of the massive intellectual resource drain. And the there-to-fore strong moral gatekeepers of churches and mosques were equally helpless against the tide of drugs, unemployment and general incapacity that swept our community. We had become low productivity consumers of goods, services and largesse. And we have not yet nor do we seem likely to reverse course.
Failure to recognize our social demise as largely an economic issue inoculates us against the very ideas that are essential for our recovery. Instead of responding to the changing land/peoplescape of Newark with an effort to control the economic reality of our community, we opted to control the political reality in hopes of salvaging our sinking condition with public policy and public dollars. This has failed. Schools are worse, services are worse, institutions are weaker and citizens are falling deeper into suffering each day. Drugs and entitlements are the monsters of habit that we cannot seem to outrun. We are slaves again.
We believe that every moment must be turned to reversing our economic fortunes starting with those areas in our own community that we can bring under our control. Go out next Sunday morning and look at the eager operators of the icy carts selling lemon ice outside of churches in the Black community. It’s a great business model. It’s an honest job being performed by someone who honors work enough to seek out a market and stand in the hot sun to make an honest living. And as you watch the pails of lemon ice that disappear into the bellies of giddy Black children and their parents, try to figure out why it is not us providing this service in our own community. Here’s another example: when you pull up to some traffic lights you will see gentlemen selling flowers to motorists, most often they are not Black. But next to them there is sometimes a Black man with a paper cup begging for coins. Take a close look at the two of them and try to figure out what makes them different and why our brother cannot sell flowers to motorists in his own community. Drugs and entitlement are usually at play.
Things have disintegrated so badly that the police have received reports about workers on construction sites in the Black community being robbed of money and tools. So not only are many of us unwilling to do any work, we are also impeding and intimidating those who want to work. Creating a value for honest work and a thirst for business development must become the key goals of our community.
Among the characteristics of plantation life three were key—the prohibition of reading, no control over plantation resources and extremely limited mobility. It is amazing that much of life in Newark’s Black community can be defined by those very same characteristics. Failing schools and negative social and peer pressures defame most learning, outsiders control most resources and too many residents are trapped by the boundaries of their own neighborhoods or similar communities (ghettos).
Until and unless we mount a competitive assault against continued and further economic control of Black communities by non-indigenous forces, Black Newark cannot recover. In which case a strategy of displacement will necessarily be pursued. It is truly painful to acknowledge that after 40 years in many ways the rut is only deeper