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Posted under: Community Submitted

A Walk Through 1950s Newark Shows That Racism Is Inherited Through Environment

And children, are affected first.

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We’re not talking here about bloodlines and genes, but factors much more insidious. Academics and ideologues have had little trouble bringing the question of racism to a boiling point. Witness the uproar created in 1994 with the publication of “The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life.”  

Millions of European immigrants, “yearning to breathe free,” disembarked at Ellis Island under the gaze of Lady Liberty. They hoped to have severed forever a centuries-old legacy of religious, ethnic and racial hatred.

This hope is far from being realized. Blacks and whites have taken to the streets throughout the country to support Black Lives Matter, a movement that continues to grow amid charges that police, in city-after-city, have unlawfully targeted blacks. White racist reaction surfaced in Minneapolis when four masked gunmen fired into a crowd of peaceful demonstrators, wounding five.

I’m an eighty-three-year-old white guy who, during more than three decades as a journalist (newspapers, Associated Press, and television), worked intensively as an Urban Affairs investigative reporter. This article is based on memories that have influenced both my professional and personal life. It is anecdotal and readers can tack-on their own empirical evidence. Montenegrin on my father’s side, and Polish on my mother’s, I was born and raised in Newark’s Third Ward, with its crime, poverty, and astronomically high infant mortality rate.

Newark prospered during World War II but was unable to cope with the peace that brought joblessness and despair when defense jobs disappeared. Deeply entrenched white enclaves were being squeezed by the mass migration of blacks, and escape routes for poor, largely under-educated, ethnic whites closed rapidly. Recent immigrants themselves, they were threatened by an unknown world for which few of them were prepared.

Hidden in the baggage that immigrants, like my grandparents, brought from the old world was the latent time bomb of fear, a bequest passed down from generation-to-generation. Blacks were the embodiment of that fear. Until the pink slips and severance checks started showing up on payday, white hatred of blacks was seldom, if ever, expressed in my family, or by other neighborhood parents. Simply stated, because we lived in a protected Catholic cocoon, we had little interaction with blacks.

This was not the case with Jews. For us, in our little ethnic Third Ward enclave and in the sprawling Ironbound section of the city, antisemitism was open and severe. Only the worst was to be believed. Jews were the slumlords, owned Newark’s three biggest department stores, and therefore, were able to fix prices, and insulated themselves in the best schools and neighborhoods.

I was six years old when I ventured a few blocks from our family apartment on South 10th Street and began playing with a boy I only remember as Josh. Two hours later, I was back on home turf where a sneering Frankie Scalari spit out, “So you got tired playing with the Jew boy. He better not bring his k**e ass over here, if you know what’s good for you.” Even among six and seven-year-olds, an ethnic party-line had to be followed, or else.

Seven years later, I was a member of an all-white Police/Firemen’s Athletic League (PFAL) baseball team. We were all from the same neighborhood, and the team couldn’t be worse. Our black coach, who everyone addressed as Mr. Saunders, sized us up after three lopsided losses and began bringing in black recruits from Morton Street Elementary. We began to win as one white kid after another bailed. Eventually, I was the only white player remaining.

After one big win, I joined my former teammates engrossed in a game of mumblety-peg. The game involved flipping a pocketknife end-over-end so it would stick in the ground as close as possible to the player’s foot. The winner was the one who came closest. He then drove a wooden peg four inches into the ground and the loser had to pull it out with his teeth. There was deafening silence when I challenged the winner, Jimmy Pecklett.

Jimmy looked up from where he was seated on the ground and said, “You gotta be f**king kidding? We don’t play with ni**er lovers.”

Frankie’s and Jimmy’s hatred did not originate in a vacuum, and sadly it was to grow exponentially over the next two decades. Did kids in the neighborhood understand all of this? Of course not. But we could sense that something was wrong and could only get worse. It’s hard to kill the great American dream. It wasn’t until inner city whites and blacks began competing in Newark’s shrinking job market that early indifference towards blacks morphed from anxiety to fear, and finally bitter acceptance that capitalism was a fraud.

In 1967, Newark was devastated by one of the deadliest race riots during that turbulent decade. More than twenty persons were killed and entire neighborhoods reduced to ashes, including the one where I grew up. When I returned to Newark and walked up Springfield Avenue, I was sickened by what I saw.

Everything was gone.

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Born and raised in Newark's crime-ridden Third Ward, and although far removed during a career as a multiple award-winning journalist, Steve Bassett has always been proud of the sobriquet Jersey Guy. He has been legally blind for almost a decade, but this hasn't slowed him down. Bassett has written two nonfiction books, The Battered Rich and Golden Ghetto: How the Americans and French Fell In and Out of Love During the Cold War. Continuing with his newest fiction release, Father Divine’s Bikes, readers share in his insights that earned him three Emmys for investigative documentaries, and the California Bar Association's Medallion Award for “Distinguished Reporting on the Administration of Justice.” He now resides in Placitas, New Mexico with his wife, Darlene.