Wards of Action: African American and Latino Citymaking in Newark

By Karolina Dos Santos

I was watching the virtual meeting on March 4th, 2021 about the proposed Aries Water Treatment Plant in the Ironbound and something Senator Teresa Ruiz said stuck with me. She said, “I’m a North ward resident born and bred and raising my daughter here. But I will tell you that what will impact one ward, one street, one block, one neighborhood impacts us [the city of Newark].” It is no secret that Newark is residentially segregated—with the Ironbound notorious for its particular brand of “ethnic whiteness,” the high proportion of Dominicans and Puerto Ricans in the North Ward, and the Afro-diasporic West, Central, and South wards with African American, Haitian, Jamaican, Guyanese, Nigerian, and Ghanaian communities. Furthermore, voting in Newark still tends to occur along racial lines.

Yet, as Senator Ruiz commented—there are some situations, such as the proposed Aries Water Treatment Plant, that affect the city as a whole. In these situations, groups must find a way to temporarily bridge their racial, ethnic, geographic and linguistic boundaries to collectively resist these threats to their economic, social, and physical well-being. Thus, I wonder, “How do African Americans, Puerto Ricans, and South Americans (Brazilians and Ecuadorians) collectively engage in citymaking in Newark, New Jersey?”

Voting is only one of the strategies that can be used to (re)shape a city. Framing issues from neighborhood to city-wide problems, mobilizing residents and migrating to a different neighborhood are all strategies that African Americans have used for generations to (re)shape their urban cityscapes. All four of these strategies comprise citymaking. African American citymakers have mobilized to improve their neighborhood schools in Chicago, created after-school programs for adolescents in Queens, migrated to neighborhoods with better resources in Long Island, and framed political representation as an issue affecting all people of color during the Civil Rights Movement in Newark, Latinos, notably Puerto Ricans, also have a history of citymaking as they mobilized for better housing conditions in Boston social services in Newark, and political enfranchisement in Hartford. However, if we continue to look at these processes separately despite African Americans and Latinos increasingly living in the same cities, we miss how they recognize, communicate with, and influence one another in their citymaking processes.

The tensions, competition, and conflicts between African American and Latino groups have been well documented. These tensions are important, but I want to take a step back and look at the common denominator between the two groups: the color line. W.E.B Du Bois, a pre-eminent sociologist of the early 20th century and the first African American to receive a doctorate from Harvard University, theorized the color line as the emblematic structure of racial modernity that not only separates whites from non-whites but structures how these subjects visualize and experience their social world. The color line manifests in social problems that affect African American and Latino urban residents such as oppressive residential segregation, political disenfranchisement, urban renewal, employment discrimination, dilapidated infrastructure, and underfunded school districts—to name a few.

As it separates whites from non-whites, the color line racializes African American, Latino, and Asian people and exploits their valuable labor to uphold racial capitalism. However, the color line does not racialize all groups in the same way. These disparate processes of racialization crystallize differences into distinct boundaries that complicate how the groups see themselves, recognize each other, and relate to one another. There has been so much focus in how African Americans, the Black diaspora and Latinos relate to whiteness, but I ask: what does communication look like between racialized groups? Too often, African Americans and Latinos are presented and studied as homogenous monoliths without taking into account the complexity within these communities.

The African American community is often studied on the premise of linked fate—the idea that all Black people share a common fate, which can influence voting behavior. Yet, the African American community is not a monolith but rather an intersectional network of power that has proactively (re)shaped the political, cultural, and spatial landscape of urban America. Similarly, the “Latino” label is a tenuously constituted group that grapples with the national, racial, and ethnic fault lines that divide it. What is less emphasized in studies of citymaking is how linked fate can also be extended to include a geographic community, not just a racial one.

In situations such as voting as racially and ethnically mixed neighborhoods, forging alliances outside of the Black community, and Black-led mobilizations that incorporate other racial groups propel me to investigate a fifth facet of citymaking: coordination. I ask, “How do citymakers organize Black-led resistance by coordinating with other racial and ethnic groups?” This question sheds light on the various conditions encountered in citymaking: working without the advantages of size and concentration in neighborhoods and facing the more ominous threat of state governments and private enterprise—forces that have surveilled and quite literally poisoned their urban landscape, respectively.

One way Black-led resistance to the color line coordinates with other racial and ethnic groups to mobilize for action is through framing—a discursive process whereby participants negotiate the shared understanding of a problem. The developed frame is the concise definition of a social problem that citymakers use to bridge boundaries and create change. Thus, I ask, What frames do African Americans and Latinos construct and utilize in citymaking? How do these frames impact the development of grassroots organizations and the unfolding of events? In this process, what new boundaries were heightened? Which boundaries were blurred, and which ones were transformed?

To better answer these questions, I trace the development of grassroots organizations, particular events, and their effects on citymaking within three events that span fifty years: The Black and Puerto Rican Convention of 1969 to elect Newark’s first black mayor, PULSENJ’s complaint filed with the federal Office for Civil Rights of the Department of Education (OCR) in 2014, and the lawsuit filed by the Newark Education Workers’ Caucus against the city of Newark in 2018. I have chosen these cases because they are examples of foundational elements of urban change: political representation, neighborhood services, and environmental justice. These particular cases represent three successful instances of citymaking, where the interracial coalitions reached their stated goals. These three cases are a starting point for my research, but I suspect that as I start searching the archives, I will find more grassroots organizations, key stakeholders, and events.

Despite being collective events, there were palpable tensions between African American and Latino communities these three moments. After the election of Mayor Gibson, the Puerto Rican community felt marginalized during his administration. Furthermore, the Puerto Rican community actually gained more representative power in Newark’s Board of Education with the Republican-led state takeover of Newark public schools and the African American community lost some of its power. Finally, there seems to be a disconnect between the incinerator issues that plague the East Ward and the lead pipeline crisis that was more prevalent in West, South, and North Wards. However, given the prevalence of different processes of racialization and thus so many intersecting boundaries and networks of power—I would have been surprised to find if there weren’t any tensions.

Social life is messy, and the color line is a durable social structure that has been developing for five hundred years. What is surprising is that these events happened at all—it was more likely that these groups would have never collaborated in the first place. The beauty of Du Bois’ concept of the color line is that while it simultaneously analyzes how this oppressive structure touches every social relationship, it also centers the striving to modify, restrain, and redirect it over generations. For Du Bois, sociology is the study of calculating the incalculable, in other words, human agency. He described it as “the greatest thing in human life.” Fundamentally, this agency is the basis of humanity. Du Boisian sociology assumes the humanity and, therefore, the agency of Black and all non-white peoples despite the racialized, oppressive structures that often inhibit their ability to realize their goals and constrain their course of action.

This agency is particularly resonant during times of intense social transformation, otherwise known as “unsettled times.” One reason I have chosen cases that represent a period of fifty years is because I argue that Newark was in an unsettled time during the first few years after the Civil Rights Movement. Now, the cycle of social transformation is repeating itself as we find ourselves in the midst Black Lives Matter movement. The Black Lives Matter protests and rebellions in the summer of 2020 have brought public attention to African Americans’ unequal access to political, economic, and social institutions and their disproportionate rates of killings by police fifty years after the Civil Rights movement.

Growing up, I have witnessed the residents of Newark, both African American and Latino, challenging the color line. Yvette Jordan, a member of the Newark Education Workers’ caucus and a teacher in the Newark Public School district, encapsulated this striving perfectly in her op-ed for The Star-Ledger, “But make no mistake—we would not be here today without the people having stood up and fought for their right to safe drinking water and more aggressive action from the government.” In this most recent chapter of multi-ethnic and interracial citymaking for clean drinking water, Newark citymakers have shown the country that low-income, urban residents are not passive victims or reactive as is too often portrayed in the media and in academic studies of urban poverty. They are an example of a larger pattern of proactive and strategic innovations that low-income, urban residents develop to work across ethnic and racial lines. The New Education Workers’ caucus and now, the Ironbound Community Corporation, have demonstrated citymaking by working collectively as a city to improve the lives of all residents by fighting for access to clean drinking water and clean air.

Karolina Dos Santos is a first-generation PhD student in Brown University’s Department of Sociology, caretaker, former Peace Corps volunteer, and educator who was born in the Ironbound. Despite being raised in Union County, she always thought of Newark as home and returned multiple times a week to visit family, friends, and attend the Luis de Camões Portuguese School. Her academic interests are race, ethnicity and cultural sociology. When not in the library, Karolina provides care for her father, works in her garden, and watches the chisme on the street from her rocking chair with her café Bustelo in hand. 

Featured image by Pexels