Saying the effects of slavery continue to harm African Americans today, members of the New Jersey Legislative Black Caucus have announced legislation to create a task force on how the state can make reparations to its black residents.
“For me, this legislation is not about a southern-rooted entity of slavery, but about the harms and the slavery codes that impacted New Jersey,” said Assemblywoman Shavonda Sumter (D-Passaic), a caucus co-chair and co-sponsor of the bill introduced Thursday.
Prospects for the measure are uncertain, but it received a favorable reaction from Gov. Phil Murphy who said he would consider the creation of a task force.
“We would be without question open-minded to that,” he said.
Introducing herself as the great granddaughter of sharecroppers, Sumter said that housing policies, segregated schools, air pollution, lead-contaminated drinking water are all examples of ways that blacks continue to be hurt by the legacy of slavery.
“All of those injustices were by design, so we’re looking forward to this task force really working with bright minds to come up with reasonable solutions that we can take a peek at for reparations for the citizens of the state of New Jersey,” she continued. “New Jersey will be an example for our country and for the world to look at as far as how we repair these irreparable harms and move into a future that will be great for generations to come.”
NJ is sixth state to take on the issue
The introduction of the bill creating the New Jersey Reparations Task Force makes the state the sixth in the nation to take on this contentious issue in one way or another. The push for reparations has gotten a lot of publicity at the federal level within the last year.
Legislation, like HR40, has been pending in one form or another for decades. A House of Representatives subcommittee held a hearing on the topic last June. And the issue has become part of the presidential race, with several Democratic candidates supporting the idea.
But there is also significant opposition. A July Gallup poll found more than two-thirds of Americans oppose paying cash reparations to blacks.
Richard Smith, president of the state chapter of the NAACP, noted that U.S. Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) said the nation has already made up for slavery by passing civil-rights laws in the 1960s and electing Barack Obama president.
“How many McConnells will we have here in New Jersey — more specifically, the McConnells we vote for each and every election, those we cannot look to for any sort of moral authority or guidance on how we should be addressing the issues of slavery and the impact today on income inequality curtailing opportunity, and civil rights and voting rights?” Smith asked.
For African American leaders like Smith, the discussion of reparations is overdue, saying slavery gave way to “policies that have disadvantaged African Americans for generations.”
More than 1.3 million New Jerseyans — roughly 15% of the population — consider themselves black, either alone or as part of a mixed race in 2018, according to U.S. census data.
Ryan Haygood, president and CEO of the New Jersey Institute of Social Justice, cited figures that put the median net worth of a black family in the state at only 1.9 cents for every $1 of white family wealth — a median of $309,000 for whites versus $5,900 for blacks.
“Black people in New Jersey are overwhelmingly separated from prosperity in the Garden State and New Jersey is one of the wealthiest states in America,” Haygood said.
History of discriminatory policies
Rev. Charles Boyer, founder of the nonprofit Salvation and Social Justice organization, noted that the Legislature officially apologized for the state’s role in slavery and apologizes for its “after effects,” but said New Jersey needs to do more.
“New Jersey’s complicit role in slavery is only the beginning of a constant structural set of state-sanctioned discriminatory abuse of policies against black people,” he said. “New Jersey is guilty of failing to combat redlining in housing and complicit in the racist intent of home rule, which has led to hyper-segregated poverty, exclusion from economic prosperity and segregated schools. New Jersey is guilty of racial profiling from the State Police and unjustified use of force by municipal police, guilty of persistent racism in the drug war, guilty of being the worst state in the nation in regards to racial disparities in the criminal and youth justice system, guilty of disenfranchising black people from the right to vote and disguising it as a criminal justice issue.”
Boyer added: “The problem this legislation seeks to solve, is how New Jersey’s guilt and liability actually turns into something tangible. I look forward to the governor, the speaker, and the senate president to do the right thing and fast tracking this bill, the way they fast track bills that mean something to them.”
Murphy said he would consider creating the task force during a press conference about a report that recommended change in criminal sentencings to address — at least in part — the wide racial disparity in the state’s prisons.
“It is a scourge that we live with, this by the way the 400th anniversary of slaves first arriving in America,” he said. “Today’s a good example of this. We want to lead the nation in social justice, and the awful legacy is included in that.”
Not necessarily money
Sen. Ronald Rice (D-Essex), chair of the black caucus and another sponsor of the task force bill, said reparations are not necessarily monetary and determining what should be done will be a major goal of the task force. Whatever reparations are decided would be funded through state tax dollars, he said.
“It’s about what we can do to bring about the equity that should have come a long time ago,” he said. Reparations could take the form of educational support, housing assistance and other forms of “social justice and economic justice,” he said.
Assemblywoman Britnee Timberlake (D-Essex), who introduced herself as “a descendant of African American slaves,” said: “Historically we’ve heard of 40 acres and a mule. Obviously that is something that is not applicable today. Through this commission, we will come up with different methods to make sure that African Americans are made whole.”
According to the bill, which does not yet have a number, Murphy and legislative leaders would appoint members to the task force, and civil-rights organizations would recommend four public members.
The task force would be charged with examining the role the state played in slavery and its lingering negative effect on African Americans. Members also would recommend reparation remedies and who would be eligible for compensation. The task force would also work to educate residents and facilitate community dialogues about the issue. The group would be charged with issuing a report with its findings and recommendations within two years after its formation.
Because the measure was introduced at the end of a legislative term, it has just two months to make it through both houses of the Legislature and be signed or it will have to be reintroduced in the new session next January.
The sponsors and groups backing the effort say they are prepared.
“I am excited to begin this journey in this tough conversation,” Sumter said.
New Jersey was the last northern state to abolish slavery, doing so in 1804, and then only through a gradual process of emancipation.