Why are New Jersey’s suburbs so segregated?

New Jersey may be one the most diverse states in the country, but it’s also one of the most segregated. It’s a fact that keynote speaker Myron Orfield elaborated on at the second annual Summit for Civil Rights.

Orfield says predominantly non-white communities are isolated and segregated from parts of towns that are predominantly white.

“I think summits like this, which really make race a central focus, solves the problem that comes up when people say, ‘Oh we can’t talk about race because it’s too divisive,'” said Naomi Williams, assistant professor of Labor Studies and Employment Relations at Rutgers University New Brunswick.

More than a hundred political and civil rights leaders from across the country attended the two-day event at Rutgers in New Brunswick. And while the topics varied on civil rights issues, the focus remained on how segregation is at the heart of all inequalities. Orfield says it’s impacting Latinos and blacks the most.

“As Latinos become a larger share of population, usually discrimination intensifies,”  Orfield said. “The fact that New Jersey’s very discriminatory towards blacks doesn’t help with Latinos. It has a very long history of segregating people. Blacks and Latinos, there’s the most data about very persistent proven discrimination in mortgage lending, and the way that real estate agents treat them, and the way that they’re treated at schools.”

Advocates say legislation and policy are the keys to ending segregation in suburbs across the state.

“I think people look at the landscape and they think it’s inevitable that some people live here and some people live here. But in fact this was really all created by government policy and those policies have never been undone. We just stopped doing the bad stuff, but we haven’t gone back in and decided what do we want our society to look like,” said Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

“We’ve done a lot of legislation on the independent prosecutor, we had the most progressive bail reform law in the nation, but there are societal issues. Because of the affordable housing issues, communities don’t tend to be as diverse so kids don’t get a chance to go to school with each other and that really hurts the progress that we need to make,” said Senate President Steve Sweeney.

“Most of these suburbs are moving through a process being integrated to being segregated again and becoming poor, and then they have the same problems as central cities have. They lose their tax base, they lose their amenities, their schools become less strong,” said Orfield.

Orfield says suburban school districts need to cooperate more to assure a more integrated future. He also says giving people, especially kids, access to the same powerful social, educational, and economic networks is at the foundation of future academic success.