The New Jersey Legislative Black Caucus and an eight-group coalition called the United Black Agenda want legislative leaders to hold hearings in March on a bill creating a New Jersey Reparations Task Force.

The legislation, S322/A711, was first introduced in November 2019 but hasn’t gotten a hearing. It seeks to have the state take responsibility for its role in American slavery and adopt policy changes to repair the resulting harm.

“We have to make this right,” said Assemblywoman Angela McKnight, D-Hudson. “There’s not enough money that can be given to us that will make us whole. However, with this reparation, it’s a start to look at everything that has been done to our ancestors.”

“In this moment of national racial reckoning, states across the nation such as California are beginning to address their complicity in racial disparities that we see today,” said Assemblywoman Shavonda Sumter, D-Passaic. “As a state, we have some of the worst racial disparities in the country.”

Those disparities include median net wealth, which the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice measures at $106,210 for white residents and $179 for Black and Hispanic residents.

“We cannot, to be sure, change the past,” said Ryan Haygood, the institute’s president and chief executive officer. “But we can together work to build a new foundation that will empower black lives.”

“The economic condition of black people is not merely bad money management,” said the Rev. Charles Boyer of Bethel A.M.E. Church in Woodbury and executive director of Salvation and Social Justice. “It is directly linked to everything New Jersey has done to us for decades.”

Haygood said New Jersey’s system of economic advancement centers around home ownership as a primary driver of wealth and that while 80% of white householders own their home, just 41% of black householders do. Years after slavery ended, he said, discrimination has endured through things like redlining, exclusionary zoning and predatory lending.

Those are the sorts of issues, policies and proposals a Reparations Task Force could examine, said Richard Smith, the NAACP State Conference chair.

“Black people don’t need another apology,” Smith said. “What we need is safer neighborhoods, better schools, a less punitive criminal justice system, better health care and jobs.”

“Reparations are powerful – not only economically, but reparations are powerful morally and spiritually,” he said. “They carry an inherent mea culpa, they carry an inherent acknowledgment of the wrongs that were done, the debt that was owed and the willingness on the part of the nation and this state to pay it.”

The proposed task force would consist of 11 members, including four legislators and seven public members. Three would be appointed by the governor and eight by the legislative leadership. At least four public members would come recommended by organizations concerned with the issues of civil rights, human rights, racial, social and economic justice and equality, reparations and similar issues.

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Members of the task force would not be paid. The panel would have to conduct public meetings in Camden, Paterson, Newark, New Brunswick, Atlantic City and Trenton. It would have to issue an interim report within a year of organizing and a final report within two years.

“We need this task force to be able to dig in, to go in deep, to understand where the gap is and how do we bring reparations to us,” said Assemblywoman Verlina Reynolds-Jackson, D-Mercer.

“But we need to just be realistic about what we think we can get, what we can’t get, what we can ask for, what we can demand,” said Sen. Sandra Cunningham, D-Hudson.

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