Christie speech mocks the American Dream, wounds people of color

Is the American Dream running from black neighbors?
Is the American Dream running from black neighbors?

The family histories of so many in this nation include escape from religious persecution, wars and revolution, political oppression, famine,  unbearable hardship, pogroms and the Holocaust. We are who we are because the oppressed faced the unknown and came here to start a new life. It was so jarring for Chris Christie to talk yesterday about his American Dream story as an escape from a neighborhood, Vailsburg, that was becoming integrated.

The Christie family did not escape from English monarchs who insisted on a state religion. Not from revolutions in southern Europe. Not from the potato famine. Not from the czar. Not from pogroms or the Holocaust. Not from grinding poverty. The Christie family escaped from black families moving into the neighborhood–new neighbors whose ancestors were brought to this country as slaves in chains. The Christies did not face the unknown wilderness or the known hostility of earlier settlers. They faced the grass, the open space, the all-white neighborhoods, of Livingston, New Jersey.

I cannot speak for people of color but I can imagine the pain many must have felt when Christie told the adoring and mostly white crowd at Livingston High School,  “I’m here in Livingston because all those years ago, my mother and father became the first of either of their families to leave the city of Newark to come here and make this home for us.”

Not Jamestown. Or Plymouth. Or Ellis Island. Livingston.

The Christies lived in Vailsburg, a leafy residential neighborhood that, with one exception, looks pretty much  today the way it did 50 years ago when the Christies escaped. The one exception, of course, is that most of the people have black or brown skin.

The hurt must be even more stinging when current residents of Newark—deprived of the pleasure of the Christie family’s company—heard this man say:  “And this is where we grew up. These were the fields we played on. These are the playgrounds we played on. This is the school we built our friends with and learned with.”

True, Newark has Branch Brook and Weequahic, lovely if often neglected parks, but the neighborhoods are pretty devoid of the kind of playgrounds the Christies must have enjoyed. They certainly don’t have the majestic schools found in places like Livingston, where Christie grew up, and Mendham and Princeton, where he and his children live today. Much of that disparity, of course, is due to policies of governors like him.

When the Christie family moved out of Newark, it was the beginning of a decade or more of “blockbusting” by real estate companies that made fortunes on the turnover of Newark neighborhoods from white to black. Nothing personal, you understand, but real estate commissions can’t be made unless houses are sold. And fear of the stranger–the black stranger– is a mighty, if evil, motivation to sell.

During the 1960s—and this is memory for me, not history in a book—fear spread through the south and north and west of the city, fear based on racism and the exploitation of that racism. Fear that the last families to move out would take the biggest financial hit because their property would be worth less because of the panic selling.  It continued for a decade or more, culminating in the bloody climax of the 1967 civil disorders.

But the Christies did not move from Newark because of what happened in 1967. They moved earlier,  just as middle class African Americnas began moving into Vailsburg. There was no need for fear then. Unless, of course, you feared the black stranger.

The hurtful mockery inherent in Christie’s speech continues with the reference to two grandmothers who gave the young Christie family $10,000 in the late 1950s to buy their house in all-white Livingston. He said about his grandmothers and their gift to Christie’s parents, “They gave them five thousand dollars each, probably all the money they had in the world, to put a down payment on a house in this town to give their children a chance to take the dream they had started to build and to make it even bigger and even better. ”

Adjusting for inflation, that $10,000 would be worth more than $80,000 today. How many families could afford to give their children $10,000 50 years ago? How many families could afford giving their children $80,000 today? Well, maybe in Livingston and Mendham and Princeton, they could—but not in Newark.

The tone-deafness of Christie’s narration is reminiscent of Mitt Romney’s advice to recent college graduates to borrow money from their parents to go into business. Sure. On what planet do these people live?

There is so much more that is insulting about Christie’s speech. We’re supposed to feel badly because his father got into Columbia but couldn’t afford to go. Many children whom the Christies left behind in Newark would never be admitted to Columbia in the 1950s because of their race or religion.  For most Ivy League schools, there were quotas for Jews and bans on blacks. In many cases, neither Irish nor Italian nor Polish need apply.

And what about the terrible burden of tuition debt now—worsened because governors like Christie cut subsidies to institutions of higher education who then pass on the burden to students and their families?

For so many reasons, Christie’s campaign is constructed of illusions, most of them simply laughable. But the way he tells the story of the Christie family’s escape from Newark is a fresh wound inflicted on people with scars enough—particularly when we remember this governor just imposed on the city of Newark a business associate with a record of hucksterism to run their schools.

In so many new ways, Christie is abandoning  New Jersey’s cities again and again.

And, to think, he wants to succeed Barack Obama.


  1. Bob,
    Minor correction: Vailsburg had and has great parks and playgrounds. I grew up in Vailsburg in the 1960s and 1970s, and we spent our recreational time in Ivy Hill Park (an Olmstead Park), Mt Vernon playground, and Seton Hall, with occasional forays to Vailsburg Park. As green as anything in Livingston. They are still there, except Ivy Hill is better than it was because of the diligent efforts of the Ivy Hill Neighborhood Association and Mt Vernon playground has been improved by the Greater Newark Conservancy. Education? The education in I got in Roseville Ave, Mt Vernon, and Vailsburg High School was good enough to get me through college and graduate school at Harvard. Too bad the Governor’s father couldn’t make it to Columbia (nor apparently could the Governor), but my classmate and friend from Vailsburg Hish School and Mt Vernon got his undergraduate and graduate degrees there, and now is a full professor of both mathematics and humanities at Claremont-McKenna College. I’m a full professor at Columbia. Yes, you are right that the Governor does not have an accurate picture of what he missed when his family left Vailsburg.

  2. Bob,

    I am not a Christie supporter by any means, I will never vote for him, but I don;t know how you garnered the idea that his family was “escaping” from Newark because they moved to Livingston. I never thought Vailsburg was a place to escape back then and I’m not saying it is now, I haven’t been in Vailsburg since I attended Seton Hall in the Seventies. I grew up in Newark and my parents moved to the suburbs in the sixties so if I follow your logic I imagine I and anyone else on this site who has moved out of Newark must be of Christie’s ilk. If his grandmothers gifted him with their monies, so what? And neither you nor I know the reasons his ancestors came to this country or what they might have suffered so please don’t go there. I don’t think this is a topic to be dwelt on. One more time I feel your comments are tantamount to race-baiting. There are so many real issues to address, not Christie’s family building the American dream.

    1. I have to agree with Annie. I do not believe thatChristie is fit to hold public office, but this article is taking a bizarre leap to place blame on the Christie family for seeking the “tranquility” of the suburbs. That’s just about every lower income family’s goal and has been for the past century.

      Bob Braun: I am not placing blame on the Christie family. I am pointing out that his narrative of the Christie family’s American Dream is a distortion and mockery of the usual story of oppressed people finding a new home in a brave new world. Running away from the problems of a city is hardly the sort of great American Dream story that inspires us, is it. He was privileged, not oppressed. HIs family sought the tranquility of the suburbs, not the freedom of a new world. What’s next? Will he try to find great inspiration and meaning in telling us that the local ice cream parlor was the first to bring in a supply of pistachio mint? It’s about as legitimate as calling himself a truth teller when he has a proven reputation as a liar.

      1. I also agree with Annie. I am very, very disappointed in this governor – but he was talking to the people of Livingston, about having grown up in Livingston. What is the big deal? He was just reminiscing, and sucking up – not claiming to have escaped oppression. And, didn’t you just say in re: Ivy league colleges in the ’50’s “In many cases, no Irsih or Italians…need apply”? And…isn’
        t Christie both?

  3. Christie’s family ran away from Vailsburg? My grandparents escaped pogroms in Eastern Europe. One of my grandfathers began his new life as a peddler. My other grandparents were tailors.

    Christie used Livingston High School like a Hollywood set. Did you notice how most of the protesting
    teachers were from the suburbs? In Newark, we have had more than our fair share of Christie’s vengeance. First, we were visited with the terrors of Anderson. Christie is ramping up the abuse with the nomination of Cerf, who will be charged with finishing off the privatization of Newark Public Schools.

    Fishman merely scratched the surface of the Bridgegate scandal. Christie authorized the spending of an exorbitant amount of money for his buddy Booker’s special election. He ran up huge bills to fly in helicopters to his son’s games and to gorge on junk food at sporting events. He enabled Anderson to run up unconscionable deficits for lunches, consultants and EWPS, of which I am one.

    I know nothing of Christie’s foreign policy positions, nor do I care. The most resounding quote was when he called teachers welfare queens. Most of the teachers I have ever met invest their hearts and souls in their work. They buy kids lunches and winter jackets.

    I do not oppose Christie for president because I am a Democrat and he is a Republican. I do not
    lend him my support because the effects Christie has had on my life and the lives of others prove him to be a despicable human being.

    1. I am a former urban educator and your response is “spot on”. He is definitely not fit for public office and I agree…he is a despicable human being. The more people who realize this, the better off for everyone!

  4. A perfect illustration of “white privilege.”

    1. Technically, it’s called “White flight”

  5. Bob – thank you for this – please don’t let the individual anomalies distract your accurate portrait.

    I grew up Yonkers NY during late 1950’s/early 1960’s and my father’s side of the family was overtly racist.

    My parents moved to the suburbs too, with help from their parents. So, I understand the dynamics from memory, not history, too.

  6. Bob – and those suburbs were built by massive government investments in interstate highways, roads, sewage treatment, drinking water, schools libraries, et cetera

    Those investments were made possible by a more progressive tax structure and higher corporate tax rates. This kept a middle class viable (as government red lined investments and build racist public housing in the urban core – known as “black removal”

    Everythin Christie now opposes with his right wing Austerity policies and subsidies to corporations and the rich

    1. sorry typo that Ta-Nehisi Coates

  7. […] Bob Braun listened to Chris Christie’s announcement of his candidacy for the GOP nomination, and he was struck by Christie’s peculiar version of the “American Dream.” […]

  8. […] Meanwhile, presidential hopeful Chris Christie is busy making black people understand that his family fled Newark not because of persecution, hunger or homelessness, but just to get away from them. As Bob Braun puts it: […]

  9. […] governor of New Jersey and inexplicable presidential candidate Chris Christie on the land of opportunity (boldface […]

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