Op-Ed: 50 Years Later — Fight for Racial Justice Continues, From Ground up

Ryan Haygood | March 27, 2018 | Opinion
If there is a lesson for progressive people to learn from the past half century, it is this: People who care about racial and social justice cannot afford to be timid

Ryan Haygood is president and CEO of the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice.
Fifty years ago today, just eight days before his assassination, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. visited the city of Newark as part of his national work to build grassroots support for the Poor People’s Campaign.

At that time, Newark, New Brunswick, and Plainfield were representative of other cities across the country; people of color were at least twice as likely to live in poverty, typically in segregated neighborhoods, where they faced frequent abuse from law enforcement.
The prior year, in 1967, these conditions of racism, poverty, and isolation, combined with the deliberate exclusion of black people from having a voice in the political process, reached a boiling point.

During the hot summer of 1967, triggered by severe police abuse of a black cabdriver named John Smith, people in Newark engaged in the rebellion, protesting against racism and abuse and systemic poverty and isolation. These protests spread across New Jersey to Plainfield and
New Brunswick, and ultimately more than 100 cities across the nation, including Detroit.

In response, President Lyndon B. Johnson convened the Kerner Commission to study the protests and propose solutions to the underlying racial discrimination that precipitated them. The conclusion of its report was stark: “Our nation is moving towards two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal.”

As part of the prescription, the Kerner Commission called for federal and state governments to invest deeply in the creation of new jobs, to hire more racially diverse and culturally competent police departments, and to invest billions in housing programs designed to combat residential segregation.

Dr. King recognized the report as “a physician’s warning of approaching death, with a prescription for life.” At that time, Dr. King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference were fighting for economic justice — for a “radical redistribution of economic and political power” to America’s poor people of all races, from black people working for subsistence wages as janitors in Newark to poor white people toiling in coal mines in Appalachia to Latinos working as migrant farmworkers in California.

Demands of the president

He planned to make these demands of President Johnson and Congress at the Poor People’s Campaign march in Washington, D.C., and to press for the passage of the Fair Housing Act and a universal jobs program and guaranteed basic minimum income.

But just weeks before the march, Dr. King was assassinated. And as protests broke out in more than 100 cities following Dr. King’s assassination, President Johnson pressed for the passage of the Fair Housing Act, but largely disregarded the more far-reaching recommendations of the commission. The Fair Housing Act was ultimately enacted in April 1968, but never fully implemented.

Fifty years after Dr. King’s warning and visit to Newark — which embodied these challenging realities — and his tragic death just a week later, we have made far too little progress as a nation.

Black people still have double the unemployment rate of white people, and the racial wealth gap has nearly tripled. The median net worth of black and Latino families is $11,000 and $14,000, respectively, compared with the $134,000 median wealth of white families.

Racial segregation persists, and from 1970 to 2015, black homeownership declined from 41.8 percent to 41.2 percent, and increased by less than 1 percent among Latinos, from 44.4 percent to 45.3 percent.

Meanwhile, homeownership among white people increased from 66.1 percent to 71.1 percent. And in the past 50 years, the black incarceration rate has nearly tripled. Fifty years later, we are still fighting the same battles over voter suppression efforts designed to exclude people of color from the political process.

Making real promise of Poor People’s Campaign

Fifty years after it was conceived, it is long past time to finally make real the promise of the Poor People’s Campaign, and to grapple with the divisions detailed by the Kerner Commission.
It is entirely clear, particularly at this moment in history, that resistance and change must happen from the ground up in our communities.

If there is a lesson for progressive people to learn from the past 50 years and today, it is this: People who care about racial and social justice cannot afford to be timid.

New Jersey, which embodied so many of these challenges in 1968 and today, can chart the path forward for the nation.

First, New Jersey must join New York and California in raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, thereby lifting hundreds of thousands of people out of poverty, and addressing our growing income inequality.

Right now, a person earning New Jersey’s minimum wage of $8.44/hour and working 40 hours a week for all 52 weeks of the year would only earn $17,555 annually, a salary that is just above the federal poverty line for a single person, and well below the cost of living, especially in a high-cost state like New Jersey.

We also need to create more systems, like Newark 2020, that connect local residents to employment opportunities in their cities. Ensuring access to jobs that pay a living wage in our communities in New Jersey and across the country will simultaneously reduce poverty and our economic and racial divides.

Transform the youth-justice system

Second, we must fundamentally transform our youth-justice system. In New Jersey, we are focusing on our failed, racialized system of youth incarceration by addressing striking racial disparities, interrupting the school to prison pipeline, realizing sentencing and parole reform, closing New Jersey’s youth prisons, and reinvesting in the creation of a community-based system of care for our young people.

In response to our 150 Years is Enough campaign, former Gov. Chris Christie announced the closure of Jamesburg and Hayes youth prisons, the state’s largest and oldest prison for boys, and the state’s only prison for girls, respectively. This is one of the most significant youth-justice reform announcements in our state in the past 150 years. And this is just the beginning.

By any measure, New Jersey’s youth-justice system is a failed experiment: it is a racially discriminatory, expensive (at a cost of $250,000 each year per child in custody), and immoral system of incarceration that does not serve our most vulnerable young people or reduce recidivism. Indeed, a black child in New Jersey is, incredibly, over 30 times more likely to be incarcerated than a white child, even though black and white youth commit most offenses at similar rates. As a result, only 18 white kids are incarcerated in the state.

Because every young person can be saved and there are no throwaway kids, our campaign engaged thousands of people across New Jersey and beyond to demand a system that supports the possibility of each child. We are working to fundamentally reimagine our youth-justice system to create a system that summons for children of color the same empathy and resources our courts, communities, and justice system has made available for white children for decades, and more recently for white people ensnared in the opioid crisis.

New Jersey can lead the nation in transforming our prison system into a community-based system of care that keeps kids in their home communities, surrounded by intensive treatment and wraparound services. And in the case that a young person may need to be in an out-of-home placement for safety reasons, it should be in a small, developmentally appropriate, close-to-home placement, with the resources necessary for full and successful rehabilitation. These are the kinds of investments we should be making in our young people.

Systemic racial disparities

Third, we must finally confront the moral stain on our democracy borne of systemic racial disparities and discrimination, and restore the right to vote to people who are on probation, on parole, or in prison. New Jersey first denied the right to vote to people with criminal convictions in 1844, the same year it adopted a constitution that restricted voting to white men.

Today, about half of the nearly 100,000 people denied access to this fundamental right are black, even though black people make up just 15 percent of New Jersey’s overall population — a result of systemic racial discrimination throughout the criminal justice system. In fact, because the law imports racial inequality from the criminal justice system into the political process, more black people in New Jersey are denied the right to vote because of a criminal conviction than were prohibited from voting before the 15th Amendment was passed in 1870.

New Jersey denies the right to vote to more people than the total population of New Jersey’s capital city, Trenton. It denies the right to vote to more people than live in Camden, Hoboken, Montclair, and more than 150 other municipalities in New Jersey.

Last month, we stood with Sens. Ronald Rice and Sandra Cunningham and Assemblywomen Shavonda Sumter and Cleopatra Tucker, 80 organizations, and people from across New Jersey to introduce historic legislation to restore voting rights to nearly 100,000 people on probation, on parole, and in prison. We are united around the belief that voting is a fundamental right that should not be lost because of a criminal conviction. Our campaign seeks to turn the page on this pernicious practice in New Jersey, and to finally proclaim that we are 1844 no more.

Fifty years ago, as now, it is clear that realization of our true equality and democracy will come from the states, not the national government. New Jersey is poised to lead the way, from the ground up.

We invite you to join us as we fight to position New Jersey as a national standard bearer for economic justice, transforming youth justice, and building an inclusive democracy.

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