“Negro George” lived in Morris County and his life was worth $300.
That is according to the New Jersey residents who bought and sold him multiple times between 1806 and 1808 and neatly recorded his name and price in a sales contract now in the collection of the New Jersey Historical Society.
What was his actual name? How old was he? What kind of labor was he forced to do? From whom in his family was he separated? The contract provided no answers. One thing that is clear: George, like the other enslaved Black people who helped to build the wealth of the Garden State, did not receive wages for his forced labor.
Today – thanks to the efforts of the New Jersey Legislative Black Caucus, with support from the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice and the United Black Agenda – Black New Jerseyans could be one step closer to getting reparations for their ancestors’ uncompensated toil. Last November, the state’s Black Caucus introduced a bill that would create a task force to study slavery, racial discrimination, and the possibility of granting reparations to the state’s Black residents.
Reparations are forms of compensation that attempt to correct historical injustices that continue to have an impact today. There are different models that have been suggested and implemented, but what is common among all of them is that they seek to close the racial wealth gap.
And that’s a good thing for all Garden State residents.
Why are reparations starting to gain traction? For one, because of the growing body of evidence that shows reparations would have broad economic benefits. For example, Duke economics professor William Darity has proposed making a $40,000 to $60,000 direct payout to eligible Black Americans. In this model, Black people would have access to liquid capital. With those dollars, they could put themselves in a stronger financial position by paying down debts such as medical bills, mortgages, and student loans.
Currently, in New Jersey, a white family’s median net worth stands at $309,000 compared to just $5,900 for a Black family. Reparations would begin to help close the racial wealth gap in the state. Reparations also could lead to economic growth through recipients’ creation and support of small businesses, leading to job opportunities for New Jerseyans of all races. Black New Jerseyans and others could use grants and other financial incentives available through the New Jersey Business Action Center. This would expand employment opportunities for Garden State citizens even further. Reparations also would increase Black purchasing power, which would benefit current businesses owned by state residents as the state gradually reopens from COVID-19.
In other words, reparations could stimulate significant economic growth in the state.
Reparations would also allow New Jersey to atone for the sin that was slavery, an historical wrong that manifests itself presently.
New Jersey has already shown leadership in helping to address the wrongs of the past. Despite being the last northern state to abolish slavery, in 2008 New Jersey became the first northern state to issue an official apology for its role in the institution. In the private sector, New Jersey-based companies, including Prudential, have started coming to terms with the role they played in the discriminatory treatment of Black people by addressing structural and institutional racism that stemmed from slavery and establishing diversity and inclusion initiatives in its hiring practices and business partnerships.
But granting reparations to Black New Jerseyians will also enable residents to demand more accountability from both public and private officials to right historical wrongs done in the state’s name. This could create a culture of accountability where no one issue would be let off the hook that is morally wrong. As the nation grapples with the killing of unarmed Black people by the police and its connection to the history of relations in this country, this state becomes stronger and better.
By delving deeply into the history of slavery, Jim Crow laws, segregation, and discriminatory housing policies, Garden State residents can have conversations about how to atone for historical wrongs. These discussions do not have to shame anyone. Instead, they make us listeners so we can, as a state, hold those responsible and accountable for the harm that was, and continues to be, caused in our name.
There are those who will be skeptical of granting reparations to Black New Jerseyans. Some will argue that money used for reparations should be put toward other needs, especially as the state and the nation climb out of a recession caused by the pandemic. However, reparations for Black New Jerseyans would serve as a way of healing past wounds by investing in the future of those who continue to face injustices that derive from a dark period of the state’s history.