Say ‘the Word’ This Juneteenth

Institute President & CEO Ryan Haygood writes

When New Jersey celebrates Juneteenth as a state holiday for the first time on Saturday, people from across the state will rally in Newark with one clear message: It’s time to say “the word.”

That word is “reparations.”

Juneteenth — also known as Freedom Day — has been a tradition in the United States for more than 150 years.

It marks the day, June 19, 1865, when enslaved Black people in Galveston, Texas finally learned about their freedom — more than two and a half years after President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863.

Today, even as we rightfully celebrate that freedom, we are keenly aware — this past year more than ever — that America is still very much living the legacy of slavery.

That is true right here in New Jersey, where we have one of the widest racial wealth gaps in America. New Jersey’s white residents boast a median net wealth of $106,210, compared to a jaw-dropping $179 for Black and Latina/o residents. That is less than the cost of a laptop.

This begins to make sense when we look at the enduring history of oppression in our state, which, to the surprise of many, has been referred to as the “slave state of the North.”

Despite being a northern state, slavery was incentivized at our state’s founding. When New Jersey was settled as a colony, white settlers received 150 acres of land and were eligible to receive an additional 150 acres for every enslaved person they brought with them. In 1704, the Colonial Province of New Jersey introduced a “slave code,” prohibiting enslaved and “free” Africans from owning property. By 1830, over two-thirds of all enslaved people in the North were held in our state.

When official slavery ended, New Jersey’s racialized system of property distribution continued through an early form of sharecropping called cottaging, where “free” Black people lived on the property of former holders of enslaved people and provided labor in exchange for shelter, food and equipment. This inequity in property distribution continued into the 20th Century through the widespread use of racially restrictive covenants, preventing Black homeownership.

Even initiatives that have been lauded as revolutionary for expanding homeownership have been limited for Black New Jerseyans. While approximately 25,000 Black New Jersey men served in World War II, fewer than 100 “non-white” veterans in New York and northern New Jersey received any of the 67,000 mortgages offered in the region under the GI Bill.

Then came redlining, the pernicious system of denying lending options to Black communities, undermining homeownership opportunities and leading to decreased property values, predatory lending and an overemphasis on renting. Predatory lending targeting Black communities led to mass mortgage defaults; New Jersey has consistently had one of the highest foreclosure rates in the nation.

New Jersey’s stark racial gaps show up not only in net wealth but also in health, education and incarceration, where we also have some of the worst disparities in America. In our youth justice system, Black kids are 21 times more likely to be locked up than white kids, the highest disparity in America, despite committing most offenses at similar rates.

Black people in New Jersey were the most likely to have died due to the COVID-19 pandemic as well as the most likely to have ever been hospitalized from the disease, with over 1% of Black New Jerseyans having been hospitalized with COVID.

Racial inequity is built into New Jersey’s very foundation, with a direct throughline to today’s disparities.

So what does all this have to do with our decision to Say the Word on Juneteenth? Plenty. Today’s inequities are a direct result of generations of intentional policy design, so must be the solution.

The reparations bill (S-322), championed by the New Jersey Legislative Black Caucus, was introduced to form a task force to study New Jersey’s shameful legacy of slavery and its aftermath and to recommend sweeping, strategic and reparative policies to address it. The call for this task force has been supported by widespread and diverse support, including groups of all races and religions – indeed, even multi-faith clergy from across the state.

Reparations can mean many things, from financial dispensation to systems change to eliminating harmful laws that perpetuate our state’s racial disparities to meaningful investments in our communities and institutions. It would be the task force’s job to determine what policies are the most responsive to New Jersey’s particular history and inequities.

Despite the energy around its introduction, the bill has not moved since January. Politicians have asked us why we can’t call it something else. “Do you have to use that word?” they have asked.

Our answer: Yes.

At the root of reparations is the act of repair. We must not run from that obligation; we must embrace it. This is not a time in our nation’s — or state’s — history to be timid. It is a time to stand up. To be bold. To repair.

It is a time to Say the Word.

After New Jersey’s legislation for a Reparations Task Force was introduced, California introduced and passed a similar bill, becoming the first state ever to create such a Task Force.

With your voice, and our collective advocacy, New Jersey will make history as the second.

We have invited the Governor, legislators and those who are committed to racial justice to join us this Saturday, June 19 for our Juneteenth Say the Word: Reparations Rally.

We hope you’ll join us, too.

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