NNPA Guest Columnist
Having spent my youth and adult years actively engaged in civil rights advocacy, not much surprises me when I hear of incidents that have racial undertones. Still, I must confess I was taken aback when I received a call from my daughter recently to learn that a local merchant, a pizzeria owner, had summoned the police to have her removed from the premises. My daughter, a 15-year-old sophomore at the public high school that is adjacent to the pizzeria, was there with a friend, another African-American female, during their lunch period.
After being told that she could not eat her home-prepared lunch in the premises, my daughter complied without debate and put her lunch in her backpack. She then sat down and shared food that her friend had purchased from the pizzeria. The owner of the shop then berated her; telling my daughter she and other students had to leave. A group of students, White males, eventually left. My daughter stood her ground because she was eating and had done nothing wrong.
The owner then harassed my daughter and summoned the police, while my daughter calmly informed him she would wait for the police to arrive. When the police arrived my daughter requested that the officer step outside so as not to create a commotion. He had a conversation with my daughter, took down the information, and my daughter returned to the school grounds. When I called the police department the officer who was on the scene confirmed that my daughter was calm, polite and respectful, and causing no trouble. He and the lieutenant in charge that day made clear their only role was conforming to departmental policy by responding to a call. Despite the apparent slight, the police could only ask my daughter to leave and could not adjudicate the situation.
It is beyond belief that an adult male would call the police on a 15-year-old child, a girl no less, who is doing nothing more than eating lunch with her schoolmates. The very fact that this merchant felt it reasonable to do so reflects a sense of entitlement that is long overdue being addressed.
There are a couple of things that are important to understand regarding this episode. My town, Maplewood, N.J., and the neighboring community of South Orange, share a public school district and the two towns pride themselves on being champions of diversity. They are both fairly solid middle-class communities that border the cities of Newark, Irvington and East Orange. While both towns are about one-third African-American, the public high school is majority Black. In many ways the communities, like a few others in New Jersey, are a tad bit too self-congratulatory on creating a post-racial environment; even though it is a fantasy at best.
What makes this story even more troubling is the fact that the Maplewood Township Council declared October 7-11 a “Week of Respect” to call attention to bullying. My daughter experienced her ordeal on October 10. So, during a week when my town focused on bullying, an adult male bullied my daughter by calling the police on her though she had committed no crime.
Judging by some of the vitriol and patently racist comments in reaction to a local newspaper story regarding the incident, my sense of the deep-seated issues in suburban communities such as Maplewood is confirmed. Peaceful coexistence and racial harmony is theatrics in suburbia, and the drama always unfolds when incidents such as this occur and the issue of “race” is raised.
To be fair, there are Whites, and many of them my neighbors, who are just as intolerant to perceived racism and injustices. However, for too many Whites in South Orange, Maplewood and similar communities, tranquility is the absence of any mention of race or any suggestion that there is racial animus in social relations or institutional settings.
The surly reader comments in the local online news site capture the ugliness that is often hidden behind the PTA meetings, community organizations, block parties and manicured lawns that create the impression of civic unity. It is the stealth-like racism that has made eradicating hate such a challenge in the post-Jim Crow era.
My daughter will survive this episode of ugliness and will learn from it. As adults though, we need to come to the defense of our children and wage a continuous battle, particularly in suburban communities, for respect and equal treatment under the law. We are post-nothing and need to acknowledge that the battles of yesteryear persist in present day, and like previous generations, we need to be bold in our declaration that we will be respected.
(I am asking the public to call Maplewood Pizzeria at (973) 378-8588 to express their disapproval and outrage over the treatment of my daughter and her friend.,)
Walter Fields is executive editor of Black Star News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.