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Governor, Dems Cautioned It’s Time to Repay African-American Support

Weeks before the critical midterm elections, community leaders tell Democrats — especially Gov. Phil Murphy — that they want action on important issues

NAACP conference
Credit: Mark J. Bonamo
L to R: The Rev. Dr. Charles F. Boyer, Dianna Houenou, La'Quay Laun'Juel, and Bill Caruso spoke in support of cannabis legalization at the NAACP New Jersey State Conference convention.

Little more than three weeks from Election Day, it should come as no surprise that New Jersey’s African-American community is united in support of the Democratic ticket in this year’s critical 2018 midterm elections. Yet, members of the community are unsatisfied with what they’ve seen thus far in the political and economic aftermath of the state’s 2017 gubernatorial election.

“Ninety-four percent of black voters supported Governor Murphy,” said Ryan P. Haygood, president & CEO of the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, speaking at the annual New Jersey State Conference of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People convention on Saturday. “You would think that 94 percent of the vote against these racial disparities would entitle us to a very specific plan of action. But it’s become very clear to me that he doesn’t have a specific plan for black people. And when you cast 94 percent of your vote for a particular candidate, that candidate has to be accountable to you.”

Haygood's reference to the 94 percent signifier of near-unanimous black political support for Gov. Phil Murphy underscores three critical policy concerns he and other African-Americans feel the progressive Democrat has yet to address since taking office in January: changing New Jersey's youth justice system, restoring the right to vote to people with criminal convictions, and closing the racial wealth gap.

The leaders of the state NAACP understand economic justice and racial disparity will be on the minds of black voters in an election that many see as a referendum on President Donald Trump's administration.

‘…unprecedented opportunity’

Richard T. Smith
Credit: Mark J. Bonamo
Richard T. Smith, president of the NAACP New Jersey State Conference

“The 2018 midterm elections present an unprecedented opportunity for black Americans to attain representation. The black vote’s power is proven,” said Richard T. Smith, president of the NAACP New Jersey State Conference, noting how overwhelming black voter turnout helped Alabama Democrat Doug Jones score an upset victory over Republican Roy Moore in last year’s special U.S. Senate election. “Let me do the math for you — this election is big time.”

Smith also pointed to the more than 400 black women running for office in local, state and national elections as a further sign that African-American voters are primed for change. But Smith wondered if this potential anti-Trump political surge will achieve its intended effect, including in a state where several closely-contested congressional races will help determine the national balance of power between the parties.

“So the big question is ‘will all the energy of the protests that Trump is generating translate into more people voting?’” Smith said. “Well that’s a big if, but as 2016 taught us, elections have actual consequences.”

But, while the nation awaits the impact of the 2018 congressional elections, some New Jersey NAACP convention attendees felt that the 2017 gubernatorial election had not been consequential enough.

Haygood cited statistics demonstrating racial disparities in wealth, voting access to the ballot box, and the systemic racism New Jersey's black community faces in the criminal justice system. For example, the median net worth of white families in New Jersey is $271,000, the highest in the nation, compared to $5,900 for black families. A black child in New Jersey is 30 times more likely to be incarcerated than a white child, the highest disparity in the nation. Currently, 100,000 people can’t vote in New Jersey because they have criminal convictions. Fifty percent of those who are denied the right to vote are black, although black people only comprise 15 percent of the state’s overall population.

Racism in criminal justice system

Ryan P. Haygood
Credit: Mark J. Bonamo
Ryan P. Haygood, president & CEO of the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice

“When you connect voting to a racist criminal justice system, then you infuse that racism from the criminal justice system into the political process,” Haygood said.

Several panelists at the conference pointed to proposed cannabis legalization in New Jersey as something that could help level the economic playing field for African-Americans, as well as reduce the impetus for crime.

“We are trying to define success related to legalization on the racial and social justice issues around economic development,” said Bill Caruso, an attorney and lobbyist with New Jersey United for Marijuana Reform, referring to the potential expungement of minor marijuana charges if cannabis is legalized or decriminalized, which would remove a barrier to business ownership. “This 94 percent that you've spoken about will be an integral part of going to the Legislature and demanding real racial and social justice reform.”

“Cannabis legalization is a piece of the puzzle of reforming our entire criminal justice system,” said Dianna Houenou, policy counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey. “And you cannot take racial justice out of this fight.”

Both clergy and businesspeople spoke out in favor of cannabis legalization.

‘That 94 percent has got to mean something’

“The only reason that our legislators are even considering this right now, the governor included, is because there is money to be made,” said the Rev. Dr. Charles F. Boyer, pastor of Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Woodbury and the executive director of Salvation and Social Justice, a nonprofit advocacy organization. “And if there is money to be made, then the revenue sure as hell better repair the damage that was done through prohibition.”

“You can't have social justice without economic justice. We have an opportunity to act on our own to amalgamate our capital, fund these businesses and create these jobs,” said La'Quay Laun'Juel, president and managing partner of Obsidian Elite Investment Association, decrying the state’s racial net-worth gap as he advocated greater minority involvement in the state’s coming cannabis industry. “Someone asked me if I think that 94 percent check with Murphy is going to cash. I think his stock is going down based on what I'm seeing.”

Haygood is looking forward to a Rally for the 94 Percent that his organization, among others, is holding on October 27 at Mount Calvary Missionary Baptist Church in Newark. The goal of the rally is to refocus efforts on erasing racial income inequality, restoring the right to vote of New Jerseyans with criminal convictions, and creating a youth justice commission with a mandate to create and oversee a comprehensive youth justice plan.

Elections do have consequences. Haygood and others at this year’s annual New Jersey NAACP convention want to make sure that those consequences go both ways.

“Governor Murphy as often as he could when he was campaigning talked about how he served on the national board of the NAACP. People tell me, ‘You all know that the governor is progressive. Just trust the process,’” Haygood said. “Here's the thing — we’re black people in America. Very rarely do processes work for us. Unless you push him, it’s going to be the status quo. That 94 percent has got to mean something.”

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