I grew up in Union County, New Jersey, about 20 miles west of Manhattan. These days it’s one of the more liberal, one might even say, “tolerant” places in the United States, but it also has a racist past not too deeply buried beneath the surface. Let us consider the town of Clark, one of only three of Union County’s municipalities in 2016 to vote for Donald Trump. Clark was founded on March 23, 1864 from portions of what at that time was the 5th Ward of Rahway. The date is significant. Examine the history of any town in the Northeast that was founded in 1864, and you will probably find that it voted for George McClellan, a conservative, pro-slavery Democrat, against Lincoln and the Republicans.
History, of course, is never simple, and to be fair, Clark was also a stop on the Underground Railroad, but at least within my lifetime it’s always had a reputation of being one of the most racist places in the state. Pretty much everybody in the surrounding towns, from upper-middle-class Cranford and Westfield, to working class Linden, Rahway and Roselle, has at one time or another jokingly added two more Ks at the end of the town’s name, Clarkkk. It is of course disingenuous liberal virtue signaling. The Roselle Police Department, for example, is still mostly white, and according to the verdict in a recent lawsuit, still mostly racist. Nevertheless, if you ask any local black person where he’d rather walk alone at night, he’d probably choose Linden, Rahway, Roselle or even Westfield or Cranford over Clark.
First let’s look at Clark’s demographics. While there are almost no WASPs in Clark, there are also almost no people of color. The town is almost completely dominated by the big four white ethnicities of Northern New Jersey. It has a large Polish American cultural center and an even larger German American cultural center, but there’s no mistaking the town’s overwhelmingly dominant nationality. My guess is that even a large part of the 8.5% of the town that’s declared itself 100 percent American is made up of Italian Americans who simply decided they were too far removed from the old country to care very much. Sadly, while it now has a Whole Foods, Clark also has shitty pizza.
In any event the key to Clark’s recent history is a federal lawsuit that was brought against the New Jersey school system in the late 1960s mandating that the makeup of each town’s schools broadly reflect the ethnic makeup of the town itself. If a town was half black and half white, all the schools had to approach those numbers. On the other hand, if a town was 100% white, it’s schools could remain 100% white. This of course let the area’s wealthier areas off the hook, but forced working-class and lower-middle-class municipalities to radically restructure their school systems. I remember it well. In 1976 in my hometown of Roselle, I was transferred from an all white elementary school on the west side of town to a more integrated school on the east side of town. I was also put into a racist “gifted and talented program,” which meant that while I saw plenty of black kids on the playground, I didn’t see very many in my English or math classes.
One district that faced this problem—Roselle, in Union County—was about to throw up its hands when representatives of the Office of Equal Education Opportunity offered a plan that seemed to work. It included the reorganization of grades, shifting of pupils and the reassignment of teachers.
The Roselle district is now proud of how effective the transition has been. Dr. Leonard J. Saunders, the Superintendent of Schools there, referred to a letter from the United States Commission on Civil Rights that commended the district for “having made significant progress in the desegregation of their public schools.”
While my parents would occasionally make racist jokes, in general they were the typical apolitical centrists who had no trouble socializing with people of all colors. My mother would regularly participate in car pools for Pop Warner Football, where she never seemed to notice, or care very much, that almost everybody on my team was black. I rarely say nice things about my mother, but I think it’s fair to say that if everybody in the area had been as indifferent to religion or skin color as she had been, the process of desegregating Union County’s school system would have gone a lot smoother.
Sadly, the result of the Civil Right’s lawsuit and subsequent reorganization was massive white flight from the towns of Linden, Rahway, and Roselle to Clark, which in effect became a fortress of Irish and Italian Catholic resentment of liberalism, a little South Boston in suburban New Jersey. In the 1980s and 1990s Clark became so racist that it was rumored to have had an active chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. Since Clark is also overwhelmingly Catholic, the story about the KKK chapter is probably just an urban legend, but the fact that so many people were willing to believe it speaks volumes.
These days, owing to a massive influx of people from New York City that resulted from the hypergentrification of Brooklyn and Manhattan, culturally Union County New Jersey probably resembles Park Slope or the Upper West Side more than the South Boston of the 1970s. Trump has about as much chance of taking the state in 2020 as Kim Jong-un or Saddam Hussein. But American liberalism has a tragic flaw. It lacks a class analysis. Clark, New Jersey, which is full of 5-bedroom McMansions and now boasts an upscale shopping center, has not so much gotten over its racist past as it has learned how to be embarassed about it.
In the video posted above, Mayor Salvatore F. “Sal” Bonaccorso, who in 2013 hosted an event featuring the notorious anti-immigrant and white supremacist buffoon Steve Lonegan, is trying very hard to hide his discomfort with the youthful protesters who rolled into his town this month from neighboring Rahway. He’s not doing a very good job, but his remark that he’s OK with black people as long as they’re “good” (i.e. upper-middle-class) law abiding citizens reveals everything you need to know about respectable, petty bourgeois racism in New Jersey. It rarely, if ever, shows its face out in the open. It hides behind law and order, upwardly mobility, class snobbery. It is in fact far more insidious than Trump’s open bigotry, and sadly will outlast his single term as President.