More than Skin Deep: Structural Racism and Poverty in New Jersey

The report’s release comes at an opportune time, with white supremacy and racism in the national spotlight and with New Jersey voters poised to elect a new governor in less than two months.  

“This report is not only timely, but it is brave and bold,” says Rev. Charles Boyer, founder of Salvation and Social Justice and APN Board member. “It goes beyond shallow discussions about overt bigotry and gets to the root issues of implicit, ingrained policies and structures that have racist results. The beginning of equity in New Jersey starts here.”  

Real-life racism

The report is the result of two years of work by several dozen individuals that included both research and data to demonstrate the problems and discussions with New Jerseyans of different races and ethnicities to hear their real-life experiences with structural racism and its effects.

Renee Koubiadis, APN’s executive director, said at a conference in Trenton to discuss the 125-page report’s release, that its findings may make some uncomfortable.

“Not everyone who participated agreed with all findings,” she said. “Some feel the report goes too far and may feel uncomfortable with that. Others may feel it does not go far enough.”

The report asserts that there is an “inherent intersection between race and poverty that still pervades the Garden State … Although it may appear we have put racism behind us, and some may even subscribe to the belief that we live in a new color-blind post-racial America, this is hardly the case.”

It opens by showing the large differences in the poverty rates among blacks, Hispanics and non-Hispanic whites, which span all age categories. The poverty rate for blacks is more than twice that of whites and it is even higher for Hispanics. Last year, according to the most recent U.S. Census data, 6.4 percent of non-Hispanic whites were living below the poverty limit, compared with 17.4 percent of blacks and 18.6 percent of Hispanics.

Racism and poverty

“The correlation between poverty and race is undeniable; both statistics and life experiences confirm the connection,” the report states. “It is much more controversial to claim that racism is a primary cause of high rates of poverty among communities of color. That claim, however, is the position of this report.”

That’s because of the definition of racism used. It’s much broader than just overt prejudice against someone because of their race: “In reality, racism operates along a wide and complicated spectrum. The spectrum includes active, explicit prejudice and varying levels of preferential treatment, but the more fundamental characteristic is access to power and opportunity. When different racial or ethnic groups have different levels of access to power and opportunity, whether the reasons for that difference come from prejudice, or history, or any number of other factors, racism is operating. This structural racism — disparate access to opportunity that is embedded in the social structures — has deeply harmful effects.”

Further, it asserts that the results of racism have “become deeply, even invisibly embedded in today’s culture and institutions” and the resulting disparities among races and ethnicities “have become a self-perpetuating status quo.” Policy decisions in such areas as housing, immigration, voting rights, school funding, and healthcare at the federal, state, and local levels have directly contributed to the problem.

‘Race-blind policies’?

The report also contends that systemic racism “can operate through apparently race-blind policies and purportedly merit-based systems of consequence and reward.”

The results are numerous and visible, including the concentration of low-income housing in areas with environmental pollution, segregated schools’ and the racial imbalance in prison populations.

“This report demonstrates that structural racism is an underlying cause of poverty among persons of color in New Jersey,” says Rev. Sara Lilja, director of the Lutheran Episcopal Advocacy Ministry of New Jersey and APN’s board president. “In an attempt to offer solutions to the problem of poverty, APN has convincingly focused on how the sin of racism continues to drive inequality, with bold and with clear-minded solutions this report offers a path for justice.”

Several speakers stressed that they will not allow this report to join so many others that are released with fanfare, then are put on a shelf to gather dust.

“We don’t think anything in this report cannot be achieved; we think it can,” said the Rev. Bruce Davidson, co-chair of the steering committee that produced the report. “There is more work ahead to mobilize the citizens of New Jersey to take action and support change.”

"This is a living, breathing, growing document,” agreed the Rev. Vanessa M. Wilson, chair of the United Methodist of Greater New Jersey Commission on Religion and Race and a member of the steering committee.

Lilja said the APN will soon release toolkits to help advocates communicate the report’s message and work for change to ensure that the report yields reform.

The report’s other major recommendations are:

  • Require racial impact statements for all state legislation and rulemaking with potential disparate impacts. Gov. Chris Christie recently conditionally vetoed a bill, S-677, that would do this on a more limited scale, for legislation affecting pretrial detention, sentencing, probation, and parole policies. The Legislature has not yet considered his CV, but it is supported by the New Jersey American Civil Liberties Union.

  • Require state departments to collect and disseminate data by race and ethnicity and socio-economic status. “We need clear, factual data,” Wilson said. “We have a lot of state data, but can’t pull out the racial and ethnic factors.”

  • Reinstate the public advocate, which Gov. Chris Christie abolished shortly after taking office in 2010. That office had acted as an advocate for the people of the state and had taken on such causes as giving residents greater beach access, protecting property rights from confiscation, and promoting affordable housing.

“We think it did important work,” Davidson said.

  • Strengthen the Division of Civil Rights, the state office charged with defending citizens against discrimination. The report wants to give the division additional powers to file and prosecute systemic racism cases by removing current restrictions that the office can only get involved in cases in which an individual demonstrates they have been personally harmed. There are numerous other recommendations in the report’s six chapters on the major issues in which structural racism affects New Jerseyans: housing, economic justice and employment, criminal justice, legal protections, children and youth, and health, hunger and mental health.

“We need advocates to fight,” said Felicia Alston-Singleton of the Greater Newark HUD Tenants Coalition. “We need our elected officials to stand up … If we all come together there could be equality and justice for all.”

Koubiadis said that implementing the report’s recommendations is not meant to promote the cause of minorities at the expense of whites.

“It does not mean whites will have something taken away,” she said. “It’s about rising tides lifting all boats … When people of color succeed, we all succeed.”

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