How to Fight Small-town Discrimination

Updated: Jun 3, 2021

By Marko Cukar | United States


My hometown of Basking Ridge has a complicated history with discrimination, but I still believe that we can work to better our community. Perhaps the most glaring example of its troubled past: our town made national headlines when it faced a federal lawsuit alleging discrimination on the basis of religion.


Initially, the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge (ISBR) purchased a property and submitted a proposal to build a mosque. With many residents harboring Islamophobic beliefs – equating Islam with 9/11, terrorism, and regressive morals that are incompatible with Western civilization – the ISBR faced massive opposition from the community.


Opposition grew in increasing vulgarity and hate through posters, websites, and social media, culminating in direct harassment and intimidation of the ISBR. At the same time, the ISBR’s application faced stricter interpretations of zoning standards that had never been applied to any construction project in the past, religious or non-religious. Additionally, the town changed the zoning code during the approval process for the ISBR’s proposal, ensuring that their application would be denied.


All the while, many residents avoided the issue, saying, “It’s not that I don’t like Muslims, it’s just a zoning issue.” In 2017, four years later, the ISBR prevailed as the court ruled that they had been subject to discrimination. They won approval to build the mosque, and were awarded $3.25 million in damages to be paid by the town.


With both the ramifications of that federal lawsuit and the increasing recognition and dialogue of systematic oppression following the George Floyd protests, one would hope that the minority communities in Basking Ridge would be heard more readily.


To read more about take on systematic discrimination in the US, click here.


Reality is that expecting systemic discrimination to disappear with a single legal victory is wishful thinking. Not even the self-interest of avoiding more costly lawsuits has spurred the town to reconsider listening and elevating its diverse voices. On June 22nd, a proposal for a Human Relations Advisory Committee was made. This advisory committee was drafted with the intention of preventing future community grievances from escalating as they did with ISBR. During deliberation, the town committee had initially agreed to the formation of the advisor committee as long as it would permit more than 4 members.


Unfortunately, the town committee began to object to the concept as being more problematic than helpful. Many of these arguments are reminiscent of the procedural objections faced by the ISBR, and I would like the committee to see the fault in their logic. The first misguided objection is that there should simply be a public forum, not a committee. The founding rationale of the advisory committee is that the public comment section during town meetings isn’t effective enough.


The logic of “you can do it, just not in this way” is painfully similar to telling the ISBR “you can build a mosque, just not here”.


This objection followed with claims that the advisory committee would do more to outline our differences and cause division. It is unchangeable that our community is diverse and has differences that we need to navigate. Remaining ignorant of different peoples does nothing to help them, but only leaves their unique experience out of the equation. Therefore, even if there is going to be a difficult dialogue, it doesn’t change the necessity of it taking place.


With the objection that having only 4 members would not permit everyone to be represented, a suggestion was made to add more members and improve the representation of the advisory committee. This suggestion too was met with further objection: a committee member said they would feel excluded if their cultural or religious group was not a part of the 4-person committee.

For a member of the town’s local government to fear not being heard comes off as ironic, hypocritical, and tone-deaf to the plight of marginalized groups.


The implicit admission of concern for representation is the very point as to why an all-white town committee isn’t fully representing other groups in town.


This response does not address the simple solution of adding more members, and is instead followed by a push to once again turn this advisory committee into a public forum. It is a deceptive move to strip away power, by turning a committee that has clear goals to enforce accountability into a public forum which is nothing more than a public grievance sharing session. This is patronizing and shows that there is no intention to give formal status to the unheard voices of the community.


Our personal opinions can also make faulty excuses:

“this is not a pattern of discrimination, just isolated incidents” “this doesn’t affect me.”


Discrimination and marginalization thrive in multitudes of excuses and re-directions, and the reason these excuses are tolerated is that we tolerate them. We would be in great error to make the same mistake we did with the ISBR when they were mistreated.


Recently, we have heard people call racism a public health emergency. If someone is facing a life-threatening emergency, we wouldn’t let a problem with insurance or paperwork prevent us from saving their life. So when marginalized voices are screaming to be heard, why are we more concerned with small procedural issues than the constant ignorance and downplaying of our residents? If most of our neighboring towns have adopted similar measures, why won’t we?


The ultimate responsibility for the actions of our community and our government lies with the members of the committee who consent to the actions of their government. This is why I, as someone who hasn’t experienced discrimination based on my race, religion, or a myriad of other identity-based factors, know I must speak up. The purpose of this proposition is to bring us together, and it’s being painted as something hostile and divisive when it is clearly not.


To anyone who lives in my town: if you are reading this article, please contact the committee, and make your voice heard.

You can read the proposal here: http://www.bernards.org/Resolutions/2020/2020-0234.pdf, and see the meeting with the comments made here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QwwzCc623TA&t=2634s.

Please see to the approval of this committee, so that there doesn’t have to be a next time where the minority is not heard and not represented.

 

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