Category Archives: Politics

Volunteering in Trenton

The following two articles were published in the Princeton Packet In October, 2015.  The first is by my writing instructor, Anne Neumann, the second by me.  We were both responding to a question about volunteering in Trenton that had been raised at a forum we attended together.  Our responses, however, are quite different.

Volunteering in Trenton

by Anne Waldron Neumann

On September 20 the Princeton Community Democratic Organization (PCDO) sponsored a panel on racism: a praiseworthy effort. But eight panel members and two topics—the Black Lives Matter movement generally and racism in Princeton specifically—made the resulting discussion somewhat disconnected and overly general.

Given two minutes each for initial comments, a Princeton historian got as far as black homeowners being displaced by Palmer Square in the early 1930s, and by Paul Robeson Place in the late 1950s. Young panel members described social media as disseminating both productive exchanges and vitriol. Ministers discussed religion’s role in overcoming racism. One panel member said that white people use “playing the race card” to mean taking unfair advantage, while black people know that race taints the entire deck.

Final questions for the panel were collected in writing. Several people asked about a clergyman’s suggestion that something like South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission could address Princeton’s racialist history. Someone else asked about Hillary Clinton’s belief that government can’t change hearts and minds. (“I don’t believe you change hearts. You change laws, you change allocation of resources, you change the way systems operate,” Ms. Clinton said.)

And one anonymous audience member, presuming extreme economic and therefore class disparities between many Princetonians and many Trentonians, asked how to be involved in Trenton in ways that “might be effective and comfortable.” Since none of the panel members addressed the question, the moderator asked the largely white audience instead.

As I see it, the question was both crucial and contradictory. Several audience members did describe volunteering in ways they found effective and comfortable: serving food in the Trenton Area Soup Kitchen, participating in “People and Stories,” and combining a passion with outreach by coaching soccer. But wouldn’t being meaningfully helpful in Trenton entail, for most white people, being profoundly uncomfortable? Wouldn’t it clarify both the disadvantages many Trentonians suffer and the white privilege that’s usually invisible?

“White privilege” includes systems that determine wealth over generations: going to the “right” school, acquiring the “right” cultural capital, getting the “right” job, and (probably, with your parents’ help) buying the “right” house—one that will never lose value precipitously. White privilege also includes seeming trivialities such as, if you’re well-spoken, never being called “articulate” and never being asked to be a spokesperson for your “race.”

Racial sensitivity training is designed to make white privilege visible. An African-American friend described participating in a well-known exercise in which workmates stepped forward if they’d ever been asked to show identification when paying by credit card, been stopped for driving too slowly (perhaps even in their own neighborhood), and so on. By the end of the exercise, the black employees had crossed the room while white ones had hardly budged.

It’s easy to think of ways to get white people across the room in this exercise: just ask the good opposite of the usual bad questions. If you don’t know any jokes about people like you, take a step forward. If you own your own silverware, take a step forward (take another step if it has at least three initials on each piece, and a baby step if the initials are from a previous generation).

But what about good things that might get black people across the room? Step forward if you can sit on your front porch and know a neighbor will stop by to chat. Or bad things that would cause white people to step forward? “If your child ever told you to f*** off and lived to tell the tale, take one giant step,” my friend suggested.

Clearly, cultural differences as well as economic ones may divide white and black folks. So, to return to the PCDO forum question, can privileged white people genuinely help underprivileged black people? White volunteers might give some black people more experiences—hopefully positive—of interacting with white people. White volunteers might gain experiences—surely sometimes painful—of interacting with black people. As I see it, volunteering in Trenton would at best change hearts and open minds.

I do think government can also help change hearts and minds. The presidency is a bully pulpit, after all. But, by and large, I’m with Hillary Clinton. Not that Princetonians shouldn’t volunteer in Trenton. But we need to change the laws and systems that determine how resources are allocated. We need, as Thomas Piketty argues, to tax not just return on capital but its possession. We need to make rent partly tax deductible, not just interest on mortgage payments.We need equal treatment under law enforcement. We need universal voter registration. We need campaign finance reform. We need voting districts set by bipartisan commissions.

In short, we need the healthful society that promotes healthful hearts and minds. We need to make volunteering in Trenton both comfortable and unnecessary.

Volunteering in Trenton, Part 2

by Chrystal Schivell

In last week’s “As I See It” column, Anne Neumann discussed a recent Princeton Community Democratic Organization (PCDO) panel “Getting Beyond Racism.” Like Anne, I was troubled by the question about “how to be involved in Trenton in ways that might be effective and comfortable.” As I listened to audience members mention TASK, “People and Stories,” and soccer, I remembered situations I’d encountered in my 23 years’ teaching at Trenton Central High School:

A young lady in Trenton High’s nursing program has prepared diligently for the test that will certify her as a nursing assistant and allow her to work in a hospital after graduation. The test is on a Saturday, and her father has agreed to drive her. The father fails to show up; a taxi is out of the question. She misses the test and is not certified.

Tamara, the vice-president of student government and a gifted student, is accepted at Syracuse University, her dream school. Buoyed by monetary awards she received at graduation, she attends freshman year. Back home, her mother is in a traffic accident, a new car is needed, and insurance rates go up. Tamara’s family can no longer afford Syracuse, and she enrolls at MCCC.

A Trenton High senior has been accepted at Georgetown and runs to show a black teacher the letter. “Why did you choose such an expensive school?” is her response, not “Bravo!” But she’s intuitive: no guidance counselor has explained to this bright young man how to apply for scholarships. His regal bearing belies his financial ignorance and need as the son of a single mom, recently arrived from Jamaica, who works as a domestic. At Georgetown, one week, his meal ticket runs out. He’s “hangry” (hungry and angry). Friends ask him to join them for drinks. He covers with “No, you guys run along. I have to study.” But he cannot study, cannot sleep. He remembers he has $4 in his bank account, but in those days the minimum withdrawal from an ATM is $5. He goes to the gym to work out, finds a $5 bill on the basketball court, buys a TV dinner, and credits God for his luck.

A colleague asks me whether I have any candle stubs. Her electricity has been cut off.

The effective help these people needed was moneyin some cases advicebut primarily money. Were the members of the forum’s audience aware of the need? Did they feel a need to address it?

“Trenton” is a code word for “poor black people.” Let’s examine what happens if we split “poor” and “black.” Probably we white Princetonians who become involved in Trenton see our involvement as enriching the lives of black folk. It soothes our guilt. But if, as panelists noted, race is a fictionwe are all members of the human racewould we be equally satisfied helping poor white people? Is our emphasis on poverty or race? I’ve known black teachers and counselors who cared little about enriching the lives of their black students; some even resented their success, jealous that the students might be getting ahead of them: “You’re from the projects. You’ll never become a doctor.” My point: effective involvement in Trenton means addressing its poverty.

Anne Neumann called for legal and systemic changes to lessen economic disparity. I agree, but meanwhile, for me, the disparity is immediate and has faces. A Trenton High colleague often said, “You can’t save all the whales,” his analogy for dealing with the poverty we witnessed. No, but my husband and I saved two.

My advice is to find among the poor children in “People and Stories” or on the soccer team one with whom you have a natural affinity. Ask permission of the parent(s) to become financially involved in their child’s life. If they agree, start with emergency funds for that taxi or TV dinner. Give your phone number and be prepared to drive the child to tests, science fairs, or out-of-state competitions. Suggest joining the parent(s) for parent-teacher conferences. When necessary, provide tutoring and pay for SAT, and AP tests. Invite the child to your homeand to Washington, New York, and Philadelphia. Use your experience to help the child plan for college and then check that the scholarship money and student loans really do cover the child’s needs. The list will go on: will you help with housing if the child goes to graduate school? What if the child needs a car to get to work? It’s the commitment that’s crucial—being there for that phone call if things go awry.

Money is never a comfortable topic. And if you treat your financially adopted child as you would treat your own child, you may find that you spend very generously. But you will have been effective. The enrichment you gave initially with soccer and “People and Stories” will enhance your adopted child’s futurenot dead end in frustration.

Overcoming Racism – Understanding Black People (The Truth)

To understand what black people (at least in America) have in common, white people must recognize what we ourselves have in common: our privilege. From childhood, I knew I was privileged because Mother told me I was an aristocrat and better than even most other white people. As a child, I believed her. Although we were poor, I went to the best private schools on scholarship—in hand-me-down uniforms. And, when Greenwich friends invited me to their mansions and country clubs, where the only black people were employees, I learned I was more privileged than black people, too. When my grandmother died, we inherited wealth amassed by generations before us, including wealth from an ancestor who, though a Northerner, had sold tent canvas to Southern rebels during the Civil War. Inheriting is like winning the lottery, but it is an advantage, like education, denied to a people who started as slaves and were later limited to share-cropping and menial jobs.

Many white people don’t enjoy my particular privileges, but, whether or not we realize it, we whites all enjoy privileges black people don’t. Peggy McIntosh’s well-known White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack lists 50 examples, such as, “Whether I use checks, credit cards or cash, I can count on my skin color not to work against the appearace of financial reliability” and “I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely represented.” My favorite is, “I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group.” It mirrors my last post about white people’s misguided eagerness to “understand” black people based on characteristics.

Black people don’t share characteristics any more than white people do. But black people do share experiences—the experience of being second-class citizens, just as white people share privilege. To understand black people we must recognize that all have experienced—or anticipate experiencing—an inequity based on color. Some are blatant lies—”Sorry, the apartment was just rented.” Some are what are now called microagressions—”I never see you as a black girl.” Each item on Peggy McIntosh’s list represents an instance in which a black person is not treated as well as someone who’s white. Her list reminds us that, in a society still dominated by white males, only white men can feel entirely comfortable. If we want to understand black people, we must acknowledge the truth of these experiences.

The black experience is unlike that of other immigrants in America. Black people were the only immigrants to come here against their will rather than to escape famine and persecution or to find better jobs. Marriage among slaves could be forbidden; mothers, fathers, and children could be split apart and sold to different slave owners; learning to read was risky. Their color made them stand out. Few blacks could elude the slave catcher. Nor could they elude the prevailing myth, designed to justify their enslavement, that black people were inferior. The free labor provided by slavery was the foundation of the South’s economy. Southern cotton fed Northern mills, and America profited. The economic benefits and social evils of slavery, whether in America or elsewhere, cannot be denied.

The painful legacy of slavery and its economic benefits persists in the perception that black people are different from, if not inferior to, other groups—even that they require well-intentioned “understanding.” And, not surprisingly, the people in power since colonial times—white men—want to keep their power. Thus racism persists as a strong undercurrent in politics and the economy. Black people know they can occasionally expect to be treated as second-class citizens. And Africans who’ve just arrived in the States, even those who are wealthy and unfamiliar with racism, learn the same lesson. After all, only white men can feel entirely comfortable, knowing that they will be considered for employment and certain they will never be told that towels are needed in the restroom.

Understanding black people means acknowledging America’s history of white power and black enslavement. Some black people emphasize our painful legacy: “America was built on the backs of our people.” To them, I can’t say “Get over it,” even though I’d like to spare myself a guilt that I, as an individual, feel I don’t deserve. I can’t dismiss those individuals who see themselves as victims because black people, by virtue of their color, are victims of America’s history, just as white people, like me, are beneficiaries. Other black people adopt a “Let’s move on” attitude. That attitude is easier on me, but I shouldn’t assume it means we’ve reached a post-racial society. The past remains alive in Ferguson and on Wall Street. The “Let’s move on” advocates know that much work remains before black people are assured of first-class citizenship. If we want to understand black people, we must be prepared, as we listen to each black person we meet, to accept the validity of either perspective.

Fear and Ferguson

Fear is not professional. Teachers and police who fear members of their community should never have been hired. We damage the very people we are supposed to serve; we damage our professions and ourselves.

Officer Darren Wilson was probably raised to fear black men. I do not hold him entirely accountable for his fear because I was raised to look down on black people, to see them as different from me, which is a form of fear. As children, Darren and I didn’t know any better. American society is responsible for our fear.

But someonethe certification board, our supervisors, and ourselvesshould have screened us for fear before hiring us as professionals. I thought I’d screened myself. During the civil rights movement, I’d rebelled against my upbringing. Although I knew few black people, I was sure they all were good but had been treated unjustly. I applied to Trenton High to help their cause. I did not anticipate the visceral fear I’d feel when surrounded by black faces. And nothing in the certification process or interview revealed my fear. Here is the story, taken from my book, of how I slipped through.

It was almost Labor Day when the Trenton School District offered me a job based on my application alone. I had the choice of an elementary school position and one at the high school. I chose the high school and went for an interview with the special education supervisor, Mr. Lorenzo Dupont. Mr. Dupont, a robust, fatherly white man who wore a short-sleeved white shirt, gray slacks, and an enormous key ring at his belt, stood waiting. A dark-skinned man in his forties, dressed in a Hawaiian aloha shirt, sat at Mr. Dupont’s desk. He seemed tired and distracted. Mr. Dupont introduced him as Dr. Hopfield, the principal. Dr. Hopfield asked me one question: Had I ever had experience in an inner city school?

My mind raced back over my career. I had taught in one city. Among my 120 English students, I’d had the children of blue-collar workers and one girl who was black. They’d resisted literature. “Why do I need this? I’m going to be a butcher like my father.” I didn’t know if the school qualified as “inner” city, but it had been a challenge.

I looked into Dr. Hopfield’s weary eyes and told him I’d worked in Woburn, Massachusetts. Dr. Hopfield nodded, gave Mr. Dupont his consent to hire me, asked that I do my best for the students, and left the office. I’d had my interview with the principal. Mr. Dupont skipped his chance to interview me and led me to my classroom.

Dr. Hopfield must have suspected my fear, but he had a vacancy to fill. Was there such urgency when Darren Wilson was hired for the Ferguson police force, or is fear the norm in Ferguson? And if fear is the norm, would Officer Wilson have tried to conquer it?

I knew I was afraid. I discovered my fear the first time I encountered a throng of black students innocently returning from lunch. I struggled to hide it and thought I was succeeding until the following incident forced me to become a professional.

Even as I romanticized the problems of the inner city, the thought that I might be physically threatened never occurred to me. But one day that fall, I found myself trapped at the back of my classroom by a new student. Large, firm breasts were inches from my face. Dark eyes looked down mockingly, “Try and get past me,” they implied. I made a move toward the intercom by the door. She pressed in more boldly. She seemed to revel in her power over me. The other students, all young men, sat watching us. Embarrassed and desperate, I yelled for the teacher in the next room. She heard me and came in. The young woman took her seat, and I passed to my desk. Nothing more was said.

My vulnerability scared me. I wasn’t used to students being bigger than I was. Big and black . . . . No. Nojust big. What had started it? Why had I lost control? My failure as a teacher scared me more.

Maybe the incident hadn’t really been a threat, just a test. After all, the young woman hadn’t actually touched me. The other students hadn’t banded together to jump me. I’d been tested by students before, though never so openly, and I’d won. Surely, I could do it again.

But the memory of those defiant breasts wouldn’t go away. A woman’s breasts. So much bigger than mine. The confrontation had meant more than just testing the new teacher. A woman’s breasts . . . on a child. A child . . . . What if the child had been trying to find someone to respect and rely on? Someone stronger, so she could put down the responsibilities carried by the woman? If so, I had failed as an adult. My job was to protect that child from finding out that she was more powerful than an adult. She didn’t need to grow up that fast. Maybe she’d tested me because she’d already been made to grow up too fast. I vowed to embrace these children.

Once I embraced my adulthood, the fear was gone. I could then embrace my students. In my 23 years at Trenton High, I was rarely tested by one of my own students and never again lost control. If only Darren Wilson had recognized Michael Brown as the teenager that he was!

Of course, in the halls or auditorium, where students were protected by anonymity, I didn’t have the same control. Kids often spoke with disrespect when I urged them to go to class or sit quietly“You’re not our teacher, “ “Mind your own business,” or “Who do you think you are? Security?”but rarely the “F” word. Trenton High kids didn’t curse, and the “F” word was considered cursing.

I learned another lesson in professionalism: don’t expect respect; earn it by showing respect. Although it was easy to earn respectand compliancefrom my own students (many were overwhelmed that I’d bothered to learn their names), it was difficult in the halls. I learned to interpret disrespect as just a few teens showing off to their peers the power that anonymity bestows. My job was to remain respectful and keep on urging their best behavior.

It was all about anonymity. For a time, girls wore gold earrings the size of index cards with the name of the wearer stenciled in. They were a big help with discipline. “Tonya, it’s time to go to class.” Tonya would whip around, indignant, “How’d you know my name!” But Tonya would start moving to class. When Trenton High divided into small learning communities where teachers knew all the students, discipline problems in the halls vanished.

What did Darren Wilson really say when he found Michael Brown walking in the street? Even if Wilson was originally as polite as he testified, I can hardly believe that Michael Brown’s alleged “fuck what you have to say” was, as Wilson testified, “a very unusual and not expected response from (sic) a simple request” and thus one that drew his attention to Brown. Why was the response “unusual” when Wilson said that he himself later told Brown to “get the fuck back.” Professionals don’t use “fuck;” they don’t need to. But they are not surprised when others do, and they don’t respond to the disrespect. Wilson could have waited for the back-up he’d called for. Better yet, community policing, where officers try to get to know the residents, could have reduced the anonymity that allowed the confrontation.

We ask our doctors to be professional. We require years of education and trainingcut by cut, stitch by stitchunder the watchful eyes of a series of licensed practitioners until confidence replaces fear. Otherwise, doctors could kill us. Shouldn’t we require more trainingand under a variety of supervisorsfor our teachers, who can kill our spirit, and for our police, who carry guns?

When Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch announced that the St. Louis grand jury had found that “no probable cause existed to file any charge against Officer Wilson,” he explained that “the law allows all people to use deadly force in certain situations.” The law needs revision. Those situations cannot include fear because someone doesn’t look like us, because someone doesn’t jump at our command. None of us should be excused. But keeping an illegal chokehold on someone already on the ground, pleading for breath, cannot be excused. When handcuffs, mace, a TASER, or even a gunshot to the leg would do the job, killing is not professional.

Society must demand higher standards. Unions must protect themselves by holding all members to those standards. And Officer Pantaleo of the NYPD must face criminal charges for what the medical examiner, a brave professional, called a homicide.

Fairness versus Family

It’s 10:00PM. The deadline is 11:59, but I still haven’t received from one of the candidates her responses to the League of Women Voters’ questionnaire that I sent fourteen days ago. I leave my lap top and head to bed, praying that she will make the deadline. Otherwise, I face a difficult decision.

I know the candidate’s child came down with a fever and stayed home from school today. Family first! I should give her a break…. But what about the League’s policy of fairness to all candidates: the same word limit, deadline, and time allowed for answering the questions? Out of fairness to all, when setting the deadline, I take into account weekends and the Jewish holidays, which always interrupt election season. And I know that the other candidates also have family health issues and constraints like moving. Couldn’t this candidate have started on the questionnaire earlier?

How to tell a sweet person, a loving mother that her responses will not be included in the Voters’ Guide because, in nursing her child, she missed a deadline? But, if I give her a break, am I not damaging the League’s reputation for impartiality? Isn’t what makes fairness fair allowing no excuses? I return to my laptop and whip off an appeal. “The hardest thing about League is that fairness to all candidates means I cannot give any one candidate any slack. So I hope you can email your written responses before the 11:59 deadline tonight.”

Family first, the mantra at Trenton High School. I was a misfit because I couldn’t understand why my mentor, during my first year of teaching, missed the first eight days of school. Unprofessional! Or why my aide missed class to get shoes dyed for her daughter’s wedding. Perhaps I didn’t understand because my family and I enjoyed good health, and I got my shoes dyed on a weekend. I retired with a year’s worth of unused sick days, and when I was hospitalized for a week, I demanded and got a substitute whom I trusted to make my kids work and wrote lesson plans from my bed.

Is it just me? Uptight? Maybe, but this summer I was the person who looked after a paralyzed friend because her family could not. They had jobs and nothing was going to get in the way of their going to work. They couldn’t afford to get fired or lose their pensions. I understand that. But what if there had been no one to look after my friend, trapped in bed, hungry, soiled, and at the mercy of fire? What if a sick child is crying while Mommy tries to compose responses to a League questionnaire? How to give a break to a misguided teenager without teaching him that he can depend on getting breaks? What about the unemployed father who steals bread to feed his family?

It’s morning. I approach my lap top with trepidation. I read a subject line, “Candidate Questionnaire Response.” The time recorded is 11:50PM. I’m saved! An accompanying email says, “Thanks for the tough love.”

Back to Blogging

I said I’d be away a few weeks, but it’s been two months. Vacation, family visits, and voter service have intervened. And what can I say after Ferguson? Such fear and force. What worth have my words when Shias, Sunnis, Syria, ISIS, climate change and Ebola dominate the news?
Can I believe that if more than 6% of the eligible African-American voters in Ferguson had voted in the last election – if an appropriate candidate had put his or her name on the ballot – a black man would not have been killed? Sadly, no. Our history of racism, the current economic depression, and a fascination with tanks instead of TASERs complicate the issue. But the vote is a powerful weapon. And since I hate settling conflicts with guns, I will be taking the next few weeks off from blogging to continue working for the League of Women Voters.
And if any readers have the courage to run for office but don’t know how, here’s a link: http://www.njwow2014.com/ Many institutions offer free workshops on running and winning. It’s certainly harder to gain power by winning an election than by buying a gun, but it’s so much more civil.

With Liberty and Justice for All

As we celebrate Independence Day, I think about the state of our country. I remember one of my black colleagues reciting the Pledge of Allegiance along with the class. At the phrase “with liberty and justice for all,” her lips would tighten into a grim line. She would not affirm what, for her, was a lie.

The United States has not yet recovered from its racist history, but another injustice looms, threatening white and black people alike. Billions of dollars in the hands of a few wealthy men and corporations have the power to undermine our democracy, skew elections, and influence elected officials. Voting rights have recently come under attack—lest the majority rule?

On this July 4th, it’s time for Americans to come together to fight for independence from the 1%.

Ban the Box

Cornell William Brooks, Esq., recently selected to be President and CEO of the NAACP, and currently President and CEO of the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, spoke at a League of Women Voters’ meeting on the topic “The Beloved Community Behind Bars: A Dream Deferred.” Much of his focus was on the “Ban the Box” movement.  Because having a criminal record, for even the smallest offense, severely impacts the chances for employment, Mr. Brooks supports banning the “box,” the question on job applications that asks “Have you ever been arrested or convicted of a crime?”

To help his audience gain perspective about criminal records, Mr. Brooks asked us to picture two old, sepia mugshots—one of an eager, self-possessed young black man, the other of an older, dignified black woman—each with a number stamped under the photo. The mugshots had been found in a dusty file cabinet in Montgomery, Alabama. I think most of us guessed correctly: Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mrs. Rosa Parks, American icons with criminal records that few of us knew about. But, Mr. Brooks pointed out, in today’s world, criminal records are digital, are saved on disk, and can be sent anywhere.

One out of three young people in America is arrested, and 65 million Americans have criminal records, often as a result of arrests after being stopped and frisked or for mischief (the kinds of risky things even League members might have done in their sorority days). Joel, a high school senior driving to an interview at Yale, accidentally bumped into a parked car. He was late and didn’t stop to leave his name and insurance information. A day after his Yale interview, he was picked up for hit-and-run. Fortunately, the owner of the dented car was a teacher and, hearing Joel’s story, refused to press charges because she knew a criminal record might jeopardize his acceptance at Yale.

Another example of the absurdity behind some criminal records is the story Mr. Brooks told about a sixty-year-old construction worker who came to the Institute for Social Justice for help. Forty years before, he’d been convicted of possessing five Valium pills that had not been prescribed for him. (Mr. Brooks asked whether League members had ever borrowed medicine from a family member, then quickly added, to laughter, “Don’t raise your hands.”) The resulting criminal record meant either that the construction worker would be fired or that his employer would lose a contract with the state. The only solution was a pardon. The Institute gathered testimony from experts that the worker, after all these years, did not pose a threat, and Governor Chistie pardoned him. To cap his argument, Mr. Brooks pointed out that Barak Obama had admitted in his autobiography to using marijuana, and George W. Bush, in his autobiography, to driving under the influence—yet the American people elected them to the presidency.

A record of incarceration deprives an individual of about $100,000 in income during his prime years. Having 2.4 million people behind bars exerts a $65 billion drag on the economy each year. Besides these economic impacts, are the moral challenges as well: self-esteem, the ability to provide child support, etc. There are also racial implications: for a white male, having a criminal record reduces his chances of being employed by 50%—for a black male, the reduction is 67%. (And even a white male with a record has a better chance at employment than a black male without one.)

For Mr. Brooks, the solution is the Opportunity to Compete Act, which takes the same position regarding hiring as does the U.S. Government and Walmart, the nation’s biggest employer. Under the act, employers would first make an offer and then run a background check for a criminal record. If a record is found and the offer is withdrawn, the prospective employee would have ten days to dispute the record or provide additional information for consideration, such as evidence of rehabilitation. The employer would not have to hire the person but would, if the position has not already been filled, have to explain in writing to the person why the offer is still withdrawn.

I’m with Mr. Brooks, and I hope my readers are too. We need to show the New Jersey Legislature that we support this act. As Mr. Brooks’s examples show, it’s not hard to get a criminal record, especially if you’re black. How many of us hold our jobs because we’re lucky not to have been caught or are privileged enough to afford a lawyer to get us off? Banning the box doesn’t guarantee employment, but it increases the chances that people will be seen for who they are now, not for how their history has marked them.