Webster’s defines Political Correctness (aka P.C.) as “…careful not to use language or behave in a way that could offend a particular group.” That is an exemplary goal; none of us should consciously try to hurt or diminish anyone else’s feelings. That being said, I believe that as the interpretation of P.C. evolves, its purpose and meaning are in danger of being obscured. In some instances, one could almost say that P.C. has become weaponized. Think how often a factual observation by a member of one group about another is instantly labeled as politically incorrect or racially insensitive or even flat-out racist. That essentially stifles any constructive discourse that might follow.
Given the many ways that we as a society now communicate, constructive discourse could not be a higher priority. Without the willingness and courage to confront uncomfortable issues, our nation will not ever be able to put its discriminatory past behind it.
If you are a regular reader of this magazine you know that I started Radius in order to help promote the positive momentum happening all around Newark and, by extension, to revitalize its commercial core. Several years ago, I funded a foundation in partnership with Rutgers Business School to create and expand a broad range of minority businesses. Since that time, we have launched 11 and have five more queued up to open in 2015. We are getting better at what we are doing and accelerating our ability to help these businesses get off the ground. When you read something in Radius that beckons you to Newark—about an entertainment or sports event, a fantastic restaurant, an emerging artist—something that makes you curious or intrigued or excited about the urban experience Newark offers, then you understand the role this publication plays in the bigger picture of the city’s renaissance.
Needless to say, the commercial revitalization of Newark will experience a quantum leap forward the instant affluent, white suburbanites begin to rediscover and embrace the city. We are making slow, steady progress. Steady is good. It’s encouraging. Slow, however, is not.
Most of the readers are too young to remember the Newark of the ’50s that I enjoyed in my childhood. It was one of the most active, economically successful cities in the country. Retail commercial rents in Newark were higher than those on Fifth Avenue in New York. All the shops on Broad Street and Halsey Street were full; the sidewalks were crowded with shoppers.
So where does the P.C. issue come into play?
We desperately need to start a frank (and frankly uncomfortable) conversation about what keeps suburban consumers from spending their time and money in Newark. We need to be willing to dispense with P.C. and explore the facts as objectively and constructively as possible. We need to address some fundamental causes of fear and misunderstanding in order to move forward and make the city the vibrant, healthy, exciting place it once was.
As a white suburbanite—uh-oh, here goes—who is utterly committed to Newark’s revitalization, I believe that there are two major issues that need to be put out in the open:
• Most white people in the suburbs perceive all Newark as being violent and unsafe.
• Most white people are nervous and uncomfortable in places where they are overwhelmingly in the minority.
Let’s tackle the first issue:
Newark’s Central Business District, University Heights and Ironbound sections are as safe as—if not safer than—any neighborhood in any major city. When was the last time you heard of a business executive in Newark being the victim of violence? Tens of thousands of them go to work in Newark every day and return home safely every night. Prudential, PSE+G, Blue Cross Blue Shield, and the U.S. headquarters of Panasonic are located in Newark. The New Jersey Performing Arts Center and the Prudential Center have experienced far less crime than Madison Square Garden. That is a fact. Yet white sports enthusiasts will drive on 280 through Newark, through the Lincoln Tunnel to Madison Square Garden to watch Rangers hockey instead of coming to downtown Newark to watch Devils hockey. If we are going to revitalize Newark we have to reverse that.
Newark is the home of a huge Rutgers campus, NJIT campus, Essex County College, Seton Hall Law School and UMDNJ Medical School. There are as many as 50,000 students that go to Newark to be educated every day. There are at least another 100,000 faculty, staff and administrators that go to Newark to teach and service them. When was the last time you heard of a student, teacher, or administrator in one of those universities being victimized by violence? In this regard, they are no different than any other urban college campus. It is this simple: Newark’s Central Business District, University Heights and Ironbound sections are safe. The statistics prove it.
The second issue is more nuanced:
I am embarrassed to say this, but white suburbanites feel uneasy in crowds that are predominantly African American or Latino. As uncomfortable as this may be to admit, I believe that it is constructive to own it and discuss it—after all, you will never get over the problem hanging around the Short Hills Mall.
I had to confront this issue within myself. As open-minded and unbigoted as I would like to consider myself, I am as guilty as anyone of these feelings. Bethany Baptist Church on West Market Street sponsors great jazz performances the first Saturday night of each month. It is a combined church worship and jazz concert. I am a jazz lover, and I very much wanted to attend with my wife, who is also white. As the day drew near, I was increasingly concerned that we would feel uncomfortable in a crowd where we were likely to be the only one or perhaps a handful of white couples present. I was not afraid of violence, but I was afraid that we would be regarded as intruders. I actually had visions of walking down the aisle, asking the folks seated in a row to let me scoot by, and have them ignore the request or even refuse to make eye contact.
What I in fact experienced was entirely different and might provide a lesson for some readers with the same apprehensions that I suffered from. When we went to our first concert, we were met at the door by ushers who welcomed us, shook our hands and thanked us for coming. Once my wife and I were seated, we were surrounded by people who greeted us warmly and welcomed us to their church and their service. I realized to my great joy that this was not a church full of African Americans but rather a church full of open, wonderful people who were there to worship God and enjoy some great jazz. They were colorblind. They saw me only as a fellow worshipper and jazz aficionado, not as a white intruder.
The little town of Maplewood that I grew up in tackled this issue on a town wide basis. In the ’90s, there was the fear of “white flight” as people were apprehensive that “block busting” was occurring. The town, along with its sister community, South Orange, formed the “Community Coalition on Race” and started holding town meetings about racial issues. The meetings became so popular that they had to be held in the high school auditorium. I remember attending one and hearing a black woman talk about the subtle discrimination she felt when she went to downtown Maplewood. Even though she was not prevented from entering any stores, she noticed that the shopkeepers greeted white shoppers by opening the door, making eye contact and welcoming them in. She felt she was treated differently. No one opened the door, there was no eye contact and no one greeted her. She felt unwelcome. She felt they wanted her to leave. I think it was great that she was able to express these feelings and to have white people sit there and listen to them. Very often we are not aware of the damage that we do subtly.
We are all on this Earth together trying to lead the happiest lives we can. Loving one another and working together to achieve our objectives is the way our creator wants us to go about our lives. Any conversation about the future of Newark is going to involve some racially charged topics. I get that, and I embrace it. Let’s try to talk about those topics in an honest, constructive way…even if it means throwing political correctness out the window.
Do you want to be part of a group that makes decisions based on fear and ignorance? Do you want to be a member of that kind of emotionally stunted group that only wants to fraternize with your own race? Can’t we heal? Let’s expose the wounds and the fears and talk them through. Let’s put Political Correctness aside. Let’s be candid and with a clean heart address the issues and see if we can solve them.
As John Lennon said:
Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world….
You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will live as one