By Andrea McChristian
More than fifty years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke to us of the Two Americas: “One America is… overflowing with the milk of prosperity and the honey of opportunity.
In “the other America”, Dr. King said, “millions of people … find themselves perishing on a lonely island of poverty amidst a vast ocean of material prosperity”.
Just as the two Americas still largely exist, there are also two New Jerseys.
In a New Jersey, made up disproportionately of black and brown households, families are struggling to make ends meet. In contrast, predominantly white families have substantial wealth and financial reserves to deal with life’s economic uncertainties and support the mobility of their children.
New Jersey is one of the most prosperous states in the country, but at the same time it is characterized by some of the most glaring racial and economic inequalities.
As documented in our recently published report, Making Two New Jerseys One: Closing the $300,000 Racial Wealth Gap in the Garden State, written by my colleague Laura Sullivan, the median household wealth of white families in New Jersey is $322,500, compared to just $17,700 for black families. In one of the richest and most expensive states in the country, one in five households has an income below $35,000.
These statistics are shocking to many at first glance. But, while most New Jerseyans are honest with themselves, they intuitively understand that the Garden State is a state of racial segregation — in our neighborhoods, our schools, and our wealth. They know that while Newark – over 50% black – has a rich and thriving culture, its standard of living is very different from that of Short Hills.
Our gaping racial wealth gap is no accident and is the result of public policies, not the result of personal choice. We all want to send our children to good schools, not worry about paying for the next meal, and take the occasional vacation. But only one New Jersey has that experience.
Both New Jerseys date back to our founding as a colony in 1664. Because of our often overlooked and deep involvement in slavery, the Garden State has also been called “the slave state of the north.” He established a racially exclusive system of land ownership – a key driver of wealth. Each family settled in New Jersey received an additional 150 acres of land for each slave who would work it.
New Jersey in the 1800s had a cottage system where blacks, although not technically owned as chattels, still worked for whites in an early version of sharecropping. In the 20th century and still today, redlining existed, where black communities are designated as “too risky” to qualify for mortgages.
By the 1940s, although about 25,000 New Jerseyans had fought in World War II, less than a hundred “non-white” veterans in New York and northern New Jersey received one of the 67,000 mortgages offered under the GI Bill.
And even during the financial crisis of the turn of this century, black communities were targeted by predatory lending through subprime mortgages, leading to a disproportionate loss of wealth during the Great Recession. Today, black borrowers in New Jersey remain the most likely to receive a subprime mortgage.
And so it is that generations of institutional racism, public policy and social exclusion – like cracks weakening our foundation – burst into earthquakes in black communities and manifest themselves as some of the worst racial disparities in all of America. America.
This divides our state in two. So how do you make the two New Jerseys one? Because our current inequalities were created by policy design, their solution must be too.
As we set out in our Two New Jerseys report released today, we must pursue policies regarding the expansion of homeownership, work and benefits opportunities, intergenerational availability of wealth creation, student loan forgiveness, and most importantly , the repairs.
A bill pending in the New Jersey Legislature to establish a reparations task force would be a key step in thoroughly studying these issues and proposing strategic restorative policies. Online, you can urge elected officials to pass it.
We need to talk to each other about who we are and who we want to be, as a state and as a nation. At a time when efforts are being made across the country to end conversations about slavery and racism, this is more important than ever.
Please join me tonight at 6:00 p.m. for the New Jersey Fund and Co-Sponsor Launch Event, IMAGINE MORE: Racial justice starts with us series, “Eliminating the Racial Wealth Gap and Ending Poverty,” where I, along with other advocates, will talk about how to close the racial wealth gap.
These issues may seem daunting, but they are not as daunting as the power of advocacy. The power of justice. The power of us.
Together we can make two New Jerseys one.
Andrea McCrian is Director of Law and Policy for the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice.
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