Last night I had the pleasure of attending a public meeting of the Teaneck Board of Education. The topic was a consolidated busing plan adopted by the Board for non-public school students, which would place dozens of children – -as much as 70 – – at various corners throughout the township for mass-collection and distribution in the early morning and early evening. The plan also eliminates “courtesy” busing for public school students in grades 1 – 4. If you think the simmering hostility and brute tension displayed at the meeting was about busing, think again. The dispute was stayed for at least one year in the face of a generous, if indelicately handled, donation by a local bank to defray the cost of the non-public busing. Courtesy busing remains off the table but, as public school parents are rightfully concerned about the impact of choosing busing cuts over education cuts, there does not seem to be sufficient outcry or will to do anything about it. It was a glimmer of light that, at the end of the meeting, many on both sides agreed to work together to try to raise funds to restore Courtesy busing.
The Day After finds good people on both sides of the debate licking their wounds. Many felt that positions were staked – – and loudly broadcast – – not along financial or safety concerns but out of racial and economic warfare. To be sure, the loudest and angriest speakers crossed red lines of acceptable civil dialogue. Notably, the local gadfly who proclaimed that “I don’t want to live near you [the Jews] and [the Jews] don’t want to live near me.” She’s right. I don’t want to live near her, but not because she is African-American. I don’t want to live near her because she is a racist who is full of hate. She is almost as dangerous as a 12 year old walking alone two miles in the dark to an overcrowded bus stop, carefully dodging buses, minivans, and sexual predators.
But, contrary to many, I did not feel that her voice was the majority. Citizens on both sides of the spectrum spoke respectfully, from the heart, and emotionally. I was encouraged by the open and honest debate, and sympathized with the well-reasoned arguments presented in favor and against the Board’s action.
The only thing that surprised me last night was that anyone was surprised by the events of last night.
Teaneck has, for decades, been home to, among other groups, a notable mix of African Americans and Orthodox Jews. For the most part, the groups have lived in harmony and peace. Indeed, Teaneck was among the first municipalities to embrace integration. But don’t fool yourselves. Teaneck lived through race riots in April of 1990. And, like many other diverse communities, peaceful coexistence sometimes masks racial and religious tension. Non-Jews perceive (inaccurately) their Jewish Neighbors as living in big houses, with big families and high-paying jobs, but who refuse to eat in their restaurants, attend their public schools, or co-mingle in their social groups. Worse, non-Jews often resent the fact that their Jewish neighbors seem to be trying to impose their will on the entire community and that evokes resistance that is grounded in self-pride and self defense.
On the other hand, the Orthodox Jewish Community contributes millions of dollars to the public school system without withdrawing any material benefit other than the free busing. Yes, that’s by choice, but you can see their point.
I am not optimistic that the racial divide can be gapped. It has existed, in one form or another, for centuries. It makes me sad because it is so unnecessary and hurtful. It tears apart good communities and good people – – many of whom I met last night. I genuinely believe that most of Teaneck wants to embrace their neighbors regardless of race or religion. I believe that most of the people who live in this town are not racists and would fight to the death against injustice and discrimination. You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.
But, this is not about racism or diversity or hatred. It’s just about busing.
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