Four hundred years ago this month, Black people arrived in Jamestown, brought to America as captives.
The issue of America’s original sin and its lasting stain have led to a national conversation about reparations this anniversary year, with people asking who is responsible, for how long, and what to do about it.
But the reparations conversation must occur at the state level, too, with each state confronting its historical role in American slavery, as well as the modern day vestiges that continue to harm descendants of enslaved Black people, while simultaneously conferring advantages to the descendants of that system’s beneficiaries.
In doing so, we must acknowledge the direct line from American slavery to today’s system of voter suppression, racial wealth disparities, mass incarceration, and racial segregation.
Perhaps, counter-intuitively, addressing these issues is in some ways more daunting in the North, where well-meaning people remark, “We aren’t like those Southern states.”
But the history and present day impact of racism in our country are not exclusive to the American South.
New Jersey was the first Northern states to restrict the vote to white men, the same year it prohibited people with convictions from voting.
Today, New Jersey suffers from racialized voter disfranchisement, denying the vote to over 100,000 people in prison, on parole or on probation, according to state data. Almost half are Black, though Black people comprise just 15 percent of the state’s population. The racism of the criminal justice system is directly imported into the franchise.
Generations of Black kids have also experienced that racism. Just two years after the Civil War, New Jersey opened Jamesburg — its largest youth prison for boys.
Today, Black children are 30 times more likely to be locked up than white children — the highest disparity rate in America, even though Black and white children commit most offenses at similar rates. Just eight white kids are incarcerated in New Jersey, compared to 113 Black kids, according to state data.
You do not have to go to the Southern border to see kids torn from their families and caged; it happens at mind-blowing rates for Black kids compared to white kids right here in New Jersey.
New Jersey also experienced racially restrictive covenants to prohibit Black people from buying, leasing, or occupying property based on race, and redlining, targeting Black people who were refused housing loans.
That legacy of housing discrimination spills into today’s vast discrepancy in home ownership rates: 75.8% for white households and 37.8% for Black households. Because home ownership is a primary driver of wealth, Black and Latino people in New Jersey confront one of the worst racial wealth gaps in America. The median net worth for New Jersey’s white families is $309,000 — the highest in the nation. For New Jersey’s Black and Latino families it is, incredibly, just $5,900 and $7,020, respectively, according to Prosperity Now Scorecard. New Jersey also leads the nation in home foreclosures, ATTOM data shows.
Finally, racial segregation itself, born from the vestiges of slavery, pervades the Garden State, which, while one of the most racially diverse states in America, is among the most segregated. New Jersey’s racial diversity and racial segregation, combined with its extreme wealth and punishing poverty, has created in New Jersey’s public classrooms some of the fiercest segregation by race, ethnicity, and income in this country. Nearly half of New Jersey’s Black and Latino students attend schools that are more than 90 percent nonwhite. Almost two-thirds go to schools that are more than 75 percent nonwhite.
It is a sobering fact that 400 years after Black people arrived in Jamestown, the legacy of slavery endures.
Addressing these systemic challenges in New Jersey and elsewhere, we must begin with the understanding that they were created by design, reinforced, and perpetuated by a legal system of racial oppression — not individual failures. Thus, a system of liberation must, too, be created by design.
This will require unapologetic and courageous leadership that is proximate to, and representative of, the Black communities impacted by this system of racial oppression. Though it is certainly part of the remedy, it also means broadening the conversation beyond cutting checks. A true system of liberation requires that we address racial injustice with a comprehensive, policy driven strategy that both repairs harms and opens opportunity unjustly denied for generations.
On the federal level, Rep. John Conyers’ HR 40 would create a commission to study and develop reparations proposals. It should be moved.
Likewise in New Jersey, our organization, the New Jersey State Conference NAACP, Salvation and Social Justice, and partners are working with leadership of the Legislative Black Caucus to create a Reparative Justice Task Force to urge New Jersey to take responsibility for its role in American slavery, including by making comprehensive and sweeping policy recommendations and other deep and reparative investments in Black communities impacted by New Jersey’s system of racial discrimination. In doing so, New Jersey will join other states, such as Vermont, in taking steps toward reparation. Other states should follow suit.
In testimony before Congress, Ta-Nehisi Coates said, “[T]he question really is not whether we’ll be tied to the somethings of our past, but whether we are courageous enough to be tied to the whole of them.”
That past – and the obligation to repair it – belongs to all of America, including New Jersey.