By Andrea McChristian
Over fifty years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. told us about the Two Americas: “One America is … overflowing with the milk of prosperity and the honey of opportunity.”
In the “other America,” said Dr. King, “millions… find themselves perishing on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.”
Just as the two Americas still largely exist, there are also two New Jerseys.
In one New Jersey, made up disproportionately of Black and Brown households, families struggle to make ends meet. In contrast, predominately white families have substantial wealth and financial reserves to weather the economic uncertainties of life and support mobility for their children.
New Jersey is one of the most prosperous states in the nation but is, at the same time, characterized by some of the starkest racial and economic inequities.
As documented in our newly released report, Making the Two New Jerseys One: Closing the $300,000 Racial Wealth Gap in the Garden State, authored by my colleague Laura Sullivan, the median household wealth of white families in New Jersey is $322,500, compared with just $17,700 for Black families. In one of the country’s highest income and most expensive states, one in five households has incomes of less than $35,000.
These statistics are shocking to many at first blush. But, if most New Jerseyans are honest with themselves, they intuitively understand that the Garden State is one of racial segregation — in our neighborhoods, schools, and wealth. They know that while Newark — over 50% Black — has a rich and thriving culture, its standard of living is vastly different from that of Short Hills.
Our gaping racial wealth gap is no accident and is a result of public policies, not a result of personal choice. We all want to send our kids to good schools, not worry about paying for the next meal and take an occasional vacation. But only one New Jersey has that experience.
The two New Jerseys date back to our founding as a colony in 1664. Due to our often overlooked and deep involvement in slavery, the Garden State has also been called the “slave state of the north.” It established a racially exclusive system for land ownership — a key driver of wealth. Every settling family in New Jersey was given an additional 150 acres of land for each enslaved person that would work it.
New Jersey in the 1800s had a cottager system where Black people, even if not technically owned as chattel, still labored for white people in an early version of sharecropping. In the 20th century and still today, redlining has existed, where Black communities are designated “too risky” to be given mortgage loans.
In the 1940s, even though about 25,000 New Jerseyans had fought in World War II, fewer than one hundred “non-white” veterans in New York and northern New Jersey received any of the 67,000 mortgages offered under the G.I. bill.
And even during the financial crisis in the earlier part of this century, Black communities were targeted for predatory lending through the use of subprime mortgages, leading to a disproportionate loss of wealth in the Great Recession. Today, Black New Jersey borrowers 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 — erupt into earthquakes in Black communities and manifest as some of the worst racial disparities in all of America.
That divides our state into two. So how do we make the two New Jerseys one? Because our current inequities were created by policy design, so must be their solution.
As we lay out in our Two New Jerseys report released today, we must pursue policies around expanding homeownership, work and benefits opportunities, intergenerational wealth-building availability, student loan forgiveness, and — as a core matter — reparations.
A bill pending in the New Jersey legislature to establish a Reparations Task Force would be a key step in studying these issues in-depth and proposing strategic reparative policies. Online, you can urge elected officials to pass it.
We must talk to each other about who we are and who we want to be, as a state and a nation. At a time when there are efforts around the country to shut down conversations about slavery and racism, this is more important than ever.
Please join me tonight at 6:00 p.m. for The Fund for New Jersey and co-sponsors’ kick-off event, IMAGINE MORE: Racial Justice Begins with Us series, “Eliminating the Racial Wealth Gap and Ending Poverty,” where I, along with other advocates, will talk about how to eliminate the racial wealth gap.
These problems may seem daunting, but they are not nearly as daunting as the power of advocacy. The power of justice. The power of us.
Together, we can make the two New Jerseys one.
Andrea McChristian is the law & policy director for the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice.
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