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‘Racist legacy’ of New Jersey worsens the economic disparities in a post-Covid 19 recovery

3 mins read

A global pandemic exacerbates economic fissures caused by generations of racialized inequities.

During the first wave of the novel coronavirus in the US, New Jersey infection numbers ranked second after New York. While a large portion of coverage focused on Gov. Cuomo’s daily press conferences, little focus showed how the most vulnerable New Jersey residents were disproportionately impacted.

With a significant amount of cases concentrated in Black and Latino communities of Essex, Bergen and Hudson counties, issues such as food and financial security skyrocketed. 

“Food security was already an issue before Covid-19 hit, but now food pantries and food distribution centers are seeing many more families,” said Newark Commissioner Allison James-Frison to Ark Republic. Commissioner James-Frison sits on a council looking at The Status of Women at City of Newark

As the tri-state area enters its recovery phases, Reverend Dr. David Jefferson, Sr., pastor of the historic Metropolitan Baptist Church in Newark, voiced concern about the aftermath. “The state’s most impoverished zip codes are inhabited by African Americans,” he wrote in an open letter to the State of New Jersey. 

Rev. Jefferson went on to say that “In all categories of economic measure, African Americans fare worse than other communities including poverty, income, net worth, unemployment, etc.”

The popular local pastor explained that he had been in talks with Black New Jersey business owners who spoke about “years of discrimination” and being shut out of procuring “access to capital and government contracts” prior to the Covid-19 pandemic. Now as the virus seemingly wanes, many business owners struggle to put together and plan with capital to operate.

“We need immediate action that addresses the past injustices and provides the necessary ingredients for our businesses and communities to right themselves economically and create meaningful job growth,” he emphasized.

Along with Black businesses barely operating, if they haven’t closed during these past months, low wealth communities must deal with the pending lift of the stay on evictions. “Families are protected from evictions right now, but when it’s over, many of these families have parents who lost jobs [during quarantine] and cannot pay rent,” said Commissioner James-Frison.

Cities like Newark used relief money to offer $1,000 rent relief. Even the Baraka Administration launched a program to help first-time buyers and city workers who bought homes during the pandemic. Yet and still, in a city with a median income of $ 35,181, poverty is a glaring issue.

Saving Black businesses

Photo credit @p__nutbutter83 on Twenty20

In Essex County, where the cities of Newark, East Orange and Irvington host majority Black populations, local mom-and-pop shops were left weakened during stay-at-home orders. “We were barely surviving before the city closed down because of coronavirus,” says Duane Reed, former owner of Seventy Sixes barbershop that was located in downtown Newark.

Reed says, “lack of proper resources and representation that spoke to the average Black-owned business” crippled the barbershops in the city. He ended up selling his business to another African American barber who “did not make it during the quarantine.

In March, the Baraka Administration offered up to $10,000 in grant money to 200 businesses. Bernel Hall, the president and CEO of Invest Newark, a non-profit arm of the city for economic development, explained that the purpose of the grant was “to quickly create and mobilize resources to ensure Newark small businesses persevere through this pandemic.” 

The city reported that they dolled out $947,468 to 105 businesses. Grants ranged from $2,500 to $10,000 to a diverse mixture of businesses.

For Rev. Jefferson, the underdeveloped sector of the Black economy stems from New Jersey’s “racist legacy” that he asserts will worsen “because there is no will or plan to address the issues,” of excluded African American enterprise. 

“Brothers and sisters in commerce, we do not need another blue-ribbon task force, panel or committee,” wrote Rev. Jefferson.

History of inequity

Photo credit @p__nutbutter83 on Twenty20

Racism in New Jersey is palpable. The last state in the northern union to abolish slavery, it holds a history of antagonizing Black towns and residents in Black cities since the 1800s. In Newark, the original capital of New Jersey, a 1959 ordinance had to be passed to allow African Americans to legally travel through its downtown district.

In 2019, the Southern Poverty Law Center published a map of 21 hate groups in New Jersey. All but one are white supremacist groups ranging from skin heads to white nationalists.  In early June, Mayor Baraka announced plans to propose an ordinance banning white supremacist groups in Newark. “These groups are a serious threat right here in New Jersey,” he said.

While the groups are extreme, there are everyday occurrences of racism. During Black Lives Matter protest in Franklin Township in June, a video surfaced of two white male, parade-watchers simulating the George Floyd police killing in front of a group of local white townspeople. One of the men, Joseph DeMarco, a New Jersey corrections officer was booted out of his union and “placed on non-pay status pending a due process hearing” said the Corrections department. 

Current governor, Phil Murphy (D), has expressed his support of racial parity. He even participated in a Black Lives Matter protest in Hillside, one of the hardest hit communities in the Covid-19 pandemic. However, a plan to attend to the unique needs in saving the local businesses has not been presented.

*Updated on June 30, 2020

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