Monday, November 4, 2019

A Contentious School Board Election In My Divided New Jersey Town

I live in Maplewood, New Jersey. My family moved here from the Ironbound section of Newark after our apartment got too small i.e. the kids started to be able to walk. We were attracted by the relatively low home prices in a town that had a rail connection to the city (necessary for my job) that was also more walkable and less auto-focused than other suburbs. It was also more racially and socio-economically diverse and politically progressive than other towns in the region.

When we moved in I slowly started noticing the fault lines in Maplewood. Our neighborhood near the Irvington border is very mixed by race and class, but that's an anomaly. One neighborhood to the south of us is predominately African American and poorer than the rest of the town. Another, on the other side of the train station, is very white and full of massive million dollar homes. There is a mix of people, for sure, but only if you look at the aggregate numbers. The town itself is pretty segregated. This has inevitably led to de facto segregation in the schools. One of the elementary schools is majority black, and all the others are majority white. As more white families like mine have moved into town the school my daughters go to has gone from being very mixed to much more white than ten years ago. The situation was so stark in an ostensibly "progressive" town that the New York Times wrote an article about it.

The issues go beyond the segregation of different schools, they also extend to the combined high school (which also includes South Orange.) Tracking, as in many other places, has been applied in ways that benefit white students and hurt black students. There have also been claims of harsher discipline being applied to black students than white students. The new superintendent is advocating for an integration plan that will be implemented next year. There's a school board election on Tuesday, and as you would imagine with this background, it's very contentious.

There are seven candidates running for three seats. Five of the candidates are black (four of them women) and two are white (one of them a woman.) On the surface it's the kind of thing the town likes to talk up about itself. Beneath the surface, however, this is by far the nastiest local election I've ever witnessed. The fuel for the fire is social media and the many local Facebook groups in this town.

On these groups I have witnessed a constant, daily stream of invective directed not only one of the candidates, but also against other Facebook groups, especially a social justice group called SOMa Justice I am a member of (full disclosure.) Any candidate affiliated with that group is attacked as representing a "special interest." Every election a parents association dedicated to racial equity asks candidates to fill out a questionnaire which is then used to give the candidates ratings on a scorecard. This year a majority of the candidates flat out declined to do so. The questionnaire and its scorecard were both vehemently attacked online by the same people attacking SOMa Justice. In so doing advocates for equity just lost one of their biggest tools to hold candidates accountable.

A lot of these attacks are coming from a splinter group from the main local group, SOMa Lounge. (The acronym is for South Orange-Maplewood.) The splinter group is called SOMa Lounge Uncensored, touting its lack of moderation. As you can imagine, this has led to a kind of local version of 4chan. I know this because particularly outrageous comments have been screenshot and shared with other groups.

In the big picture there is a school board election in a town with a serious racial equity problem, but many of the candidates have been remarkably quiet about their opinions on this issue. Their silence, rightly or wrongly, has been taken as a sign by a brigade of internet trolls who are trying to tear down organizations fighting for racial justice in this community. I used to find the drama level of our local school board elections amusing but now I find it frightening. The Trumpist politics of destruction and resentment are everywhere in this country, including in this supposedly progressive, diverse town in New Jersey. Next year the integration plan is going to be launched. I need to get ready to get out there and fight.

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