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

diversity,

and in particular bias crimes committed against those whose

differences

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

January.

The question was something like: "Have you, or anyone in your

family, or any of your friends, ever personally experienced a bias

crime?"

The anticipated answer was "No." But, says Parker,

"everyone

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

living

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

individuals

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

honored

is Neil Bhaskar, CEO of NovaSoft Information Technology, a

company

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

Windsor-Plainsboro

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

done,"

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

diversity

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,

surprisingly,

the culprits were most definitely not the usual suspects.

"Only two percent of bias crimes are committed by hate

groups,"

says Parker. This statistic runs completely counter to public

perception,

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

criminals,

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

reasons,

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

mission.

"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

involve

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

crimes.

"We’ve taught tolerance," says Parker, "but tolerant

people

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,

this means:

Encourage managers to examine themselves. All people bring

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

attitudes.

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

grandparents

— toward members of minority groups, women, and people from

different

religions or with different sexual orientations. Armed with this

knowledge

they can openly explore stereotypes and begin to appreciate

differences.

Assess the company culture. Do an assessment, says Parker.

What is the culture of this organization? Does it embrace differences

in its employees? Does it widely represent the differences present

in its customers?

Move beyond laundry lists. Embracing diversity involves

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."

Accepting differences is not enough. Says Parker: "We have

to move beyond tolerance. We tolerate bad weather and headaches. We

have to do much better with people."

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