today in black history

May 29, 2024

Tom Bradley defeats incumbent Mayor Sam Yorty and becomes the first Black mayor of Los Angeles on this date in 1973.

Suburban Weeds

POSTED: October 14, 2013, 6:00 am

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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 last week 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 on 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 school mates. 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, New Jersey, 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. Some years ago Maplewood and South Orange established a Coalition on Race as sort of a declaratory statement of the two towns’ intention to live above the racial fray. In the 16 years I have lived here I have yet to see the evidence of their work, and the episode involving my daughter suggests that we are all living behind a façade of racial reconciliation.

What makes this story even more troubling is the fact that just last week 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. The week was based on the New Jersey Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights Act, passed in 2011. The law specifically states “bullying means any gesture, written, verbal or physical act, or electronic communication that is reasonably perceived as being motivated by an actual or perceived characteristic, such as sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, mental or physical disability or any other distinguishing characteristic.” 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 like 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 places like South Orange and Maplewood tranquility is the absence of any mention of race or any suggestion that there is racial animus in social relations or institutional settings. There is pride in being color blind when in truth many are blinded by race, refusing to see obvious patterns of disrespect and injury inflicted upon African-Americans. So long as Blacks are willing to be quiet in their oppression their presence is tolerated. In 2013 there are still those who are offended by the very idea that African-Americans have the courage to be assertive in demanding respect and defending their human right to be treated with dignity.

What my daughter experienced is not out of the norm and we have reminded her of that these last few days. We are also making certain to make publicly known the behavior of this local merchant and are taking the necessary steps to hold him accountable for his behavior. This episode is a reminder, a cautionary tale of being Black in suburbia and misjudging the trappings of “acceptance” as the true nature of social relations. 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.

Walter Fields is the Executive Editor of

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.

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