I shared this reflection with my spiritual practice group that meets monthly. I found it very helpful to take time to reflect on how my life has been affected by the institutional racism baked into our society. I conclude my reflection with "queries," open-ended questions, to help stimulate reflection.
I grew up in Princeton, a town which decided to integrate its public schools in the early 1950s, I’m not sure why. Princeton University was a very white Waspy place. When Woodrow Wilson was president of Princeton, he was known for writing a history of the Reconstruction era in the South, celebrating the Ku Klux Klan. Nonetheless, Princeton took seriously Brown vs. the Topeka Board of Education which called for schools to integrate in 1954.
Integrating our school system didn’t require busing since Princeton Borough at that time was a small college town of around 10,000 or so people where everyone had their place.
The rich lived on the southwest side of Princeton in an area resembling San Marino.
Next to them was the Quarry Street neighborhood, where blacks lived (since many of them had been or were servants of the rich). The famous singer/activist Paul Robeson was born in this neighborhood in 1898, and his father pastored the Witherspoon Presbyterian Church, which was founded for blacks since they were not permitted in the white Presbyterian church. Robeson’s father was born into slavery, and his mother was from a prominent Quaker family. I knew nothing about Paul Robeson or the Quakers, however, until much later in life, since this part of Princeton history was never discussed in my classes. I only found out about Paul Robeson when I took a teaching job in an all-black inner city school in nearby Trenton, which I’ll say more about later.
The northeast side of Princeton was where the working class and immigrants lived (that’s where I grew up in a narrow street with the charming nickname of Pig Turd alley, right next to Gasoline Alley. It wasn’t as bad as it sounds: like Northwest Pasadena, my part of town was colorful and friendly, filled with Italians, Greeks and other ethnic groups, but no blacks.)
The professors and professionals lived east of Nassau Street with nicer homes than ours, but not as opulent as the west siders.
Everyone knew their place in this class conscious town. But as I said, Princeton wasn’t large: you could easily walk from one side of town to another in half an hour or less, so it was possible to integrate the schools without busing. The elementary school for whites on Nassau Street was integrated and the school for blacks on Quarry Street became an integrated junior high. As I went to elementary school, I had black teachers and black friends and was not aware that skin color was a significant factor.
At puberty, I was precocious, read voraciously and became an admirer of Dr. King and the Civil Right movement. I also became aware of systemic racism in my own integrated, but still biased school system. The junior high which I attended was in a black neighborhood and had a black principal, but it maintained a white cultural perspective. Students were “tracked” according to their ability. This was supposed to be a meritocracy, but race still reared its ugly head. I was in the top track because I did extremely well in elementary school. Those of us in the top track couldn’t help noticing that most blacks were tracked into the lower level classes. This became an issue when a new student from Britain who was black was placed in this lower level. Her father was a member of the British Academy of Science and was teaching at Princeton. His daughter attended a first-rate private school in England and was a couple years ahead of us in her education but she was placed among low-performing students, many of whom were black. It was obvious to us in the top track that this was result of prejudice and racism. We were outraged and protested, and she was placed in our top level class, much to the embarrassment of liberal Princetonians who thought their school system was free of bias. This was my first experience of systemic racism, and what it takes to overcome it.
I am grateful to Princeton for at least making an effort to integrate its public schools. I am also grateful that most Princeton University faculty kept their kids in these public schools. This is in sharp contrast to Pasadena, which had to be forced to integrate by the Federal government in 1970, and where many middle class and prominent white Pasadenans moved their kids from public to private schools to avoid desegregation.
After college, I felt drawn to teaching, so I decided to become a substitute teacher in a virtually all black inner city junior high school in Trenton. Trenton, the capital of NJ, became predominantly black during the 1940s “Great Migration” when many blacks came north from the south and whites fled to the suburbs, their homes funded by generous government loans. Today 50% of Trenton’s residents are black, 33 % are Latino, and 14% are white. In the mostly black school where I taught in 1974, almost all the students were black and it was an eye-opening experience for me. Compared to Princeton, this inner city school for blacks was terrible. The teachers mostly handed out mimeos and let students fill them out. Fights frequently broke out in classrooms among bored students. There seemed to be very little real teaching. And in the faculty lounge, teachers often talked about which of their former students were in which jail. In Princeton, the faculty lounge conversation would usually be about which student had gone to which Ivy League school. This is when I became aware of what Jonathan Kozol called the “savage inequality” of America’s school system.
It was here that a black faculty member said to me, “Hey, you’re from Princeton. That’s where Paul Robeson was born.” To my eternal embarrassment, I said, “Paul who?”
How could I have been clueless about Paul Robeson—a giant of justice, and a Renaissance man who was a stellar athlete, singer, actor, and Civil Rights leader, born and raised in my home town, and educated at Rutgers, where I eventually earned my doctorate? The answer is simple: Robeson was black, and a Communist sympathizer. Princetonians ignored him until he died 1976, when they named a street after him. In 2008, Princeton opened the Paul Robeson center for the Arts in the Quarry Street neighborhood to honor his memory, just as Pasadena honored its native son, Jackie Robinson. Just like Robeson, Robinson and his family experienced so much racism in his native city that he moved to Haarlem.
Princeton also ignored its Quaker heritage, which I only learned when I came back to Princeton in 1984 to take care of my mother. That’s when I started attending Princeton Meeting and was excited to be part of religious group that had opposed slavery and stood up for Civil Rights. I learned that in 1774, Philadelphia YM approved a statement saying that you couldn’t be a good Quaker and hold slaves. Many Quakers became leaders in the abolitionist movement and also in the Civil Rights movement. It felt good to be a Quaker.
I started a youth service program for Quaker youth with the American Friends Service Committee, which was started to provide alternative service for conscientious objectors during WWI. Today the AFSC has grown into a multi-national organization committed to social justice and has made a strong commitment o be multi-racial and multi-cultural. I recently attended an anti-racism workshop led by an AFSC staff person during our annual Quaker gathering.
Even though Quakers have a history of opposing racial injustice, most Quakers are white and we find that troubling. Our national Quaker organization, Friends General Conference, commissioned a study to find out the true history of race relations and Quakers. In 2009 Donna McDaniel and Vanessa Julye, a white and a black woman, published Fit for Freedom, Not for Friendship: Quakers, African Americans, and the Myth of Racial Justice.
Here’s a blurb for this eye-opening book:” This book documents the spiritual and practical impacts of discrimination in the Religious Society of Friends in the belief that understanding the truth of our past is vital to achieving a diverse, inclusive community in the future. There is a common misconception that most Quakers assisted fugitive slaves and involved themselves in civil rights activism because of their belief in equality. While there were Friends committed to ending enslavement and post-enslavement injustices, Fit for Freedom, Not for Friendship reveals that racism has been as insidious, complex, and pervasive among Friends as it has been generally among people of European descent.”
I’m glad that my eyes were opened by this book, and I have come to realize that Quakers have a lot of work to do to overcome our history of unconscious racism and prejudice.
Since marrying Jill and moving to Northwest Pasadena, a racially and ethnically mixed part of our city, I have become increasingly conscious of the institutional racism in its diverse aspects, including housing. Northwest Pasadena was “red-lined” by banks, which would not make loans in this area when it was predominantly African American. Because of racial covenants, this was the only part of the city where blacks could purchase homes. Red-lining and racial covenants became illegal when the Fair Housing Act was passed in 1968, but racial discrimination in housing persists. Overcoming racism is an ongoing struggle. Some of the work is external, and some of it is internal. This internal work has a spiritual dimension that I would like to share with you today. That’s why I brought these “queries” to help us. Queries are open-ended questions that Quakers use during times of worship sharing to help us to listen to each other more deeply and to become more aware of what Spirit is revealing to us. This practice can help us to become more aware of what we can do to overcome our unconscious racism.