Corrections or additions?
This article by Kathleen McGinn Spring was prepared for the May
15, 2002 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Tolerence is Not Enough
Robin Parker’s great grandfather was lynched
in Penson, Tennessee. His family, Parker says, broke up after that.
An attorney and the founder of Beyond Diversity Resource Center, a
non-profit based in Mount Laurel, Parker has never been to Penson,
but his father did pay a visit once. "There are still Parkers
there," he says. The Parkers are not his relatives, though, but
rather members of the plantation family who owned them.
"It was common," Parkers says, "for slaves to take the
name of their owners."
This shocking information came near the end of a phone interview in
response to a routine question. The subject of the interview was
and in particular bias crimes committed against those whose
are represented as the excuse for these acts. Robin Parker,
a former New Jersey deputy attorney general, headed up the state’s
bias crime unit from 1992 until he founded his non-profit last
The question was something like: "Have you, or anyone in your
family, or any of your friends, ever personally experienced a bias
The anticipated answer was "No." But, says Parker,
has prejudices." Apparently he is correct.
The prejudice operating here is that a person who addresses a subject
with Parker’s keen intelligence and unusual insights is a person
in a world untouched by the effects of bigotry taken to the extreme.
The prejudice is that a person who speaks of hate crimes in a lucid,
cerebral, and surpassingly calm and non-judgmental way, is the sort
of person whose life — whose family — has never been touched
by something as infuriating and destructive as a hate crime.
Parker, whose non-profit counsels communities, corporations, and
on ways to embrace diversity, is being honored on Thursday, May 16,
at 5:30 p.m. by the International Institute of New Jersey at its Fifth
Annual American Dream Celebration at the Newark Club. Also being
is Neil Bhaskar, CEO of NovaSoft Information Technology, a
with offices at 3570 Quakerbridge Road. Cost: $175. Call 201-653-3888.
Parker did not set out to combat bias crimes. The son of an Air Force
officer and a stay-at-home mom, he grew up all over the world. After
leaving the military, Parker’s father moved the family to Princeton
Junction and took a job as director of test security for Educational
Testing Service. The family moved here, Parker recalls, when Route
1 was still dominated by Reed’s Sod Farm and Quaker Bridge Mall was
not yet under construction. Parker was a member of the West
High School Class of 1976, the first to graduate from the school.
"There were 200 students in my class," he recalls.
After high school he went to Rutgers (Class of 1980), where he studied
English. He earned his J.D. from the University of Oklahoma, and then
returned east to start practicing law. He obtained a clerkship with
Isaac S. Garb, a Pennsylvania judge, and then worked for a small
Trenton law firm for a year before becoming a deputy attorney general
in 1985, first bringing state briefs in the Appellate Court, and then
heading up the bias unit.
The unit was new, and its emphasis was different from that of the
state’s other legal units. He was to do prosecution, "but human
relations as well." He knew nothing about the latter, but felt
he had an ace in the hole. "It was something I had never
he says, "but I had my father to rely on." His father, it
turns out, had done diversity training as a private consultant, and
eagerly took on his son as a pupil. Then, only a couple of months
after Parker’s appointment, his father died. "My lifeline fell
away," he says.
At about that time, the Anti-Defamation League called him to Glen
Ridge. There had been anti-Semitic incidents, including egg throwing
and other harassment of a Jewish family in town. There he met Nancy
Mamas-King, a member of the ADL. He confessed his lack of diversity
training to her, to which she replied, "`I’m so glad you called.
Diversity training is one of the loves of my life.’" He had found
a new mentor. Mamas-King, an associate director of Youth and Family
Services in the Bronx, is now research and development director of
Parker’s Beyond Diversity Resource Center.
In time, Parker came to love the challenge of the
education component of his new job with the bias unit. One of the
first groups he had to educate was the press. Just as he was beginning
his job, a study was published announcing that New Jersey had led
the nation in bias crimes for 1991. "We had something like 1,000
crimes. Alabama had five," he says. It fell to him to explain
to any number of media representative that this news was not entirely
bad. "New Jersey does the best job of reporting," he says.
It was extremely unlikely that the state actually had 200 times more
bias crimes than other states.
Still, there was work to be done to reduce the number, and,
the culprits were most definitely not the usual suspects.
"Only two percent of bias crimes are committed by hate
says Parker. This statistic runs completely counter to public
and therein lies one of the greatest obstacles to eliminating the
crimes. The average person who commits a hate crime is young, probably
does not have a criminal background, and may be enrolled in an elite
school. The average bias criminal does not make a career of committing
these acts, but rather strikes only once, or a few times. Bias
in short, do not stand out in a crowd. "They don’t have blood
dripping from their teeth or a lot of those horrific tattoos,"
says Parker. Most look a whole lot like their neighbors.
As a case in point, five years ago a group of young people carved
a 70-foot swastika in a corn field in Mansfield and terrorized the
African American community over a period of three years. "They
were students," says Parker, "including middle class, Ivy
League. If you met them, you couldn’t believe it." The message
from the community there, a message he has seen repeated again and
again, is "these are good kids."
Young people — and others — commit bias crimes for three
says Parker, and a racial agenda is not even close to the most common
trigger. "Most bias crimes are done for thrills," he says.
"They think it’s funny." The second most common motivation
is a perceived need for defense. This type of bias crime occurs when
a family with a difference — perhaps race, sexual orientation,
or religion — moves into a neighborhood, causing some neighbors
to feel threatened. The third type of bias crime is driven by a
"There," says Parker, "you have real hatred." Acts
by extremist groups would fall into this last category.
In appearance, a bias crime looks like any other crime. It might
property damage, an assault, or harassment. But, in addition to being
an act that is classified as a crime, the bias crime must involve
a bias motivation. Add that motivation, and a bias crime can be much
more toxic than other criminal acts.
"The impact is unique," says Parker. "People are attacked
for what they cannot change." If a car is stolen, he points out
by way of contrast, "there are ways I can arm myself." It
is possible to buy an anti-theft device, to park in a different place,
or to buy a model that is less attractive to car thieves. "With
a bias crime, there is a devastating psychological feeling," he
says. "I cannot change."
The effects reach beyond the targeted individual, making others in
the same group wonder if they will be next. As the circle widens,
says Parker, whole communities can be torn apart by a bias crime,
blaming one another. "Them/us scenarios evolve," he says.
"The community can come apart at the seams in nasty ways."
Bias crimes as a whole have been declining in New Jersey for five
years, but the attacks on the World Trade Center were the catalyst
for an upsurge in such crimes. "Since September 11, we’ve seen
a dramatic increase in bias crimes against Arabs, Middle Easterners
— or people appearing to be from the Middle East — and against
the Indian community," says Parker. He believes that the backlash
against these groups exposes a truth underlying bigotry and bias
"We’ve taught tolerance," says Parker, "but tolerant
can shift into doing very prejudiced things. Only in a society where
we teach people how to value and celebrate and cherish diversity does
it become more difficult to create scapegoats." For a company,
their view of the world — and their prejudices — to work.
An important first step in companies that want to combat bias crimes
is to encourage managers to look at themselves, to examine their
It is the rare manager working in New Jersey who will not supervise
many workers who are different from him. "We are the most diverse
state in the union," says Parker. Managers must be open about
their own feelings — perhaps inherited from parents and
— toward members of minority groups, women, and people from
religions or with different sexual orientations. Armed with this
they can openly explore stereotypes and begin to appreciate
What is the culture of this organization? Does it embrace differences
in its employees? Does it widely represent the differences present
in its customers?
more than taking note of diverse culinary requirements or marking
religious holidays on the calendar. The key thing, says Parker, is
"what do we need to do to make this a learning organization?"
The specifics will change. New ethnic groups will arrive. Employees
will age. The constant, he says, "is the notion of valuing people,
being conscious of what happens to people."
to move beyond tolerance. We tolerate bad weather and headaches. We
have to do much better with people."
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