Growing Up White In the 1960’s In Newark, New Jersey

In our new generation, let's prioritize education, appreciation of our differences, and the will to do better.

Olga Enger/ Shutterstock
Olga Enger/ Shutterstock

I was reluctant to write this article for fear that it would be met with consternation, be misinterpreted, or twisted into something it was not meant to be. I would like this article to be historical, not histrionic, poignant, but not political. 

I was a young white kid growing up in Newark, NJ in the 1960’s. It was slated to be a decade of national change and reform, particularly in the area of race relations, but as we are all witnessing now, not much has changed over the last 53 years. The rioting in Newark, all those years ago, started over, as with today, white police officers severely beating an unarmed taxi cab driver who was only waiting for his fare.

In the 1960’s we witnessed much violence in our country – the assassination of  president John F. Kennedy, his brother, the attorney general Robert Kennedy, and the prominent civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, all struck down by assassins bullets for all the public to see. At the end of the decade, with racial tensions high in many American cities, the flood gates burst open. 

I can remember hearing nightly police cars and fire engine sirens blearing through the summer air, night after night just blocks away from where I lived. I could see police cars going down the street with shotguns pointing out of the windows. And I would walk past National Guard soldiers standing on the street corners as I walked to school. The evening news was filled with the violence, occurring not only in Newark, but other major cities across the country. As an adolescent, it all seemed surreal to me. 

Living in Newark as a white kid came with certain “rules” of the streets. I knew which blocks were okay to walk down and which ones to avoid.  And the same was true of black kids – they needed to stay on their blocks and with that, a strange equilibrium was in place. If a black person was seen on a white street, they would stand out with people assuming they were there for trouble. The same sensibility was apparent if a white person would be seen walking on a black street. There was an inherent mistrust between blacks and whites, not often talked about in the company of kids, but known in some strange way. 

In 1967, the same year as the riots, my family moved to a middle-class suburban town just six miles north of the city. Those six miles could have been a thousand and six miles as the difference was like night and day. The suburban kids knew nothing of the problems going on in the city nor did they seem to care. Most of the kids were busy playing lacrosse, having a catch with a baseball, or throwing a football on manicured lawns throughout the town. Many others were swimming in their backyard pools. There was no rioting, no National Guard soldiers, no fire engines screaming all night long, and no death and destruction occurring on the streets – just the lazy days of summer without a care.   

In the fall of 1967, when I tried to talk to the kids I met at my first year at a new school, I was met with disbelief and accused of making up the stories. I would relate to them what I had seen and heard and they would make fun of the fact that I was getting frustrated by their apathy. Even some of the teachers would question my stories and hinted to the others that it was all a fabrication. I could not believe how insular the suburban town could be. 

I believe that the main tenant about racism is the historical “power” by the white establishment over the African American people which disallowed any form of trust to develop over centuries of time. Fear pervaded the consciousness of white people toward black people established by indoctrination that the black population was inherently “bad” and “dangerous.” As whites, we were taught to mistrust and fear each other out of ignorance, prejudice, and generational hate. It is time that everyone begins to see one another in a more compassionate and respectful light. I believe we need to heal as a nation by opening up discussions about the fear and mistrust that is so inherent in our society. Talking it out, is when we come together to try to mend our differences; acting out, is only a primitive reaction to anger. Sure there are good people and bad people in our society that has nothing to do with the color of one’s skin. We must learn to trust one another, to interact with one another, and to respect one another before any substantive change will take place. 

There is a new generation coming up that can see the wrongs in our society and who are eager to make them right. Let’s use education, appreciation of our differences, and the will to be better to help them along. 

I invite any feedback this essay may have inspired.    

Robert C. Ciampi, LCSW is a psychotherapist, writer, author of the book, When to Call a Therapist, and media contributor. 

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