Opinion: Black like…? In a largely black city, the mayor’s race is being cast along very blurred racial lines


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Shavar Jeffries and Ras Baraka are vying to be the next mayor of Newark. Both men have earned bachelor's and post-graduate degrees, are accomplished in their respective fields, and have persevered through family tragedy.

Wednesday, July 1, 1970. That was the last day Newark had a mayor who was not African-American. The following Thursday, Ken Gibson took over the mayorship from Hugh Addonizio, and became the first black mayor of a major Northeastern city. The racial implications of Gibson’s ascension to Newark’s highest seat colored every corner of the race (sorry, some puns write themselves). Every mayoral electoral campaign since then has pretty much been waged among black folks.

That dynamic is likely to change as the influx of Latinos and Spanish-speaking immigrants swell Newark’s voting rolls. But for the next election cycle or two, they will essentially be the Hispanic elephant in the room.

The election that will be decided here on Tuesday, May 13, 2014 will result in Brick City’s fourth black mayor assuming office. However, there is so much race-based vitriol coming from both camps that onlookers could be excused if they thought they were mystically transported to Addonizio’s 1970.

Bourgeoie vs. B-Boy

The dime store Cliff’s Notes version of the archetype that's been assigned to Jeffries is that he is a candy-ass, spoon-fed softie, not really made of the stern stuff of which Brick City (read: black) men are composed.

Sure, he was born in Newark and raised in the South Ward, but he’s not really "down". He didn’t go to Weequahic High School, or University, or even Arts – Hey, that’s a good school! He got a scholarship to attend Seton Hall Prep in West Orange. Then after Seton Hall, he ran as far away from his brothers and his roots as possible by attending Duke University. You can’t get a whiter education than that…except maybe the Ivy League’s Columbia University, where he graduated from law school. Sure, he came back to Newark to live…but where are his boys? How does he grow up in Newark and have no peoples? He’s not really down. White boy.

The tale of the tape on Baraka is that he’s a “thug.” As the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks’ All-Pro defensive back Richard Sherman noted after he was so labeled: “’thug’ is the accepted way of calling somebody the N-word nowadays.” After Baraka graduated from Howard University, a black school – excuse me, a historically black university – he came back to Newark. He was back on the block, chilling with the same cats he knew from way back. Some of them grew up to be drug dealers, stick-up men, gang members and murderers. But Baraka was still down with them because he was just a down mother— Shut your mouth! I’m just talkin’ ‘bout Baraka, baby. Nig— excuse me, thug.

It would be both easy and cliché to say that the truth is probably somewhere in the middle. But the truth is that there is no middle. There is just a nebulous everywhere – a dense fog that we walk through, hoping to bump into something tangible. People are so much easier to deal with when they fit squarely into the boxes we fashion for them, the boxes that we decide are their realities. Alas, those boxes say more about us than they ever could about them.

Both men could have lived wherever they wanted after college. An Ivy League law degree is a ticket to anywhere. Shavar Jeffries’ anywhere turned out to be Newark, New Jersey. Baraka, the son of New Jersey Poet Laureate and civil rights troubadour, the late Amiri Baraka, was an accomplished poet in his own right, having been prominently featured on The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, it's namesake's Grammy Award-winning 1998 album, amongst other acclaimed hip-hop fare. He, too, could have set up camp wherever he chose. Both men opted to come home.

His stepfather murdered Jeffries' mother, a man I’ve only heard Jeffries refer to publicly as “the locksmith.” Baraka’s sister, Shani, was murdered by their other sister’s estranged husband. Two men, both the collateral damage of murderous domestic violence, fighting to lead New Jersey’s most statistically violent city. There is no evidence to suggest that they share some sort of necromantic bond. Violence doesn’t make them kindred spirits any more than it unites other residents of the city who have been victimized by crime, pain, and death. But when it comes to crime, pain and murder, they both can relate in very non-rhetorical ways. Can you feel their pain?

Many people, mostly Baraka supporters, say that they’ve never heard of Jeffries before he decided to run for mayor. That is likely. Jeffries worked for the New Jersey Attorney General’s office as an assistant Attorney General, did some other lawyer-type stuff, and then became a professor at Seton Hall Law School.

Baraka, on the other hand, came from a family of performers (his mother Amina is a noted poet in her own right) and was on one of the hottest selling albums in the history of pop music. After Lauren Hill’s Miseducation, Baraka became a schoolteacher, vice principal and principal. Virtually every resident in the city knew his name. His perpetual runs for political office didn’t hurt his brand, either.

The scuttlebutt is that Jeffries is in the pocket of rightwing political operatives who want to take over the city, because, you know, what fat cat corporate magnate chilling on their estate in Bedminster doesn’t dream of being the King of Prince Street? It’s not that Newark is of less value than the state’s other urban enclaves. It’s that the previous mayors and municipal council members already gave away the store.

Newark politicos gave one-third of the city’s land to the Port Authority for pennies on the dollar. Billion-dollar corporations on Broad Street are allowed to pay less in taxes than a single parent with three kids on Hunterdon Terrace. Newark politicians traditionally played the Natives to everybody else’s Peter Minuit. Heck, the Native Americans who mythically sold Manhattan for $24 worth of beads to the Dutchman probably got a better deal than Newark gets.

Those same municipal council members and ineffectual politicians are on the tickets of both candidates. Moneyed political operatives from around the state have weighed in, tossing their dollars and hedging their bets. Politics doesn’t just make for strange bedfellows. It facilitates downright f-ed up associations.

Baraka, the public high school principal and charter school adversary, is in bed with Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop, who is a wholly owned and bought subsidiary of hedge fund billionaire David Tepper, the founder of the education “reform” group Better Education for New Jersey’s Kids, Inc. (B4K). Bruno Tedeschi, Fulop’s former spokesperson, is now a member of the Jeffries campaign. Retread politicians have seats in both camps, and one gets the sense that their fealty is composed of unabashed opportunism.

There are discernable differences between the two men, but they cannot be summed up by the  “the professor vs. the hoodlum” (or if you prefer, “cornball sellout” against “anarchist revolutionary”) meme that has taken hold of the public dialog about the candidates.

In terms of the supporters of either side, this race even defies caste designations. Middle class blacks and Latinos pitted against poor blacks and Latinos doesn’t fit the molds that we’re used to seeing. Baraka and Jeffries both have supporters (and detractors) from every level of the economic spectrum. I’ve heard middle class and poor people expound upon why they backed either candidate, and it sounded more like an in-depth analysis of their own psyches. I found myself thinking more than a few times, “Wait, are you talking about him, or you?”

Maybe the fog will have lifted by the time Election Day comes around.

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