Critics Slam N.J.’s Racial Progress, Cite Reports
The state has high proportions of minorities in special education and prisons. Moderate-income housing is still largely segregated, activists contend.
Steve Strunsky, Associated Press, Jan. 19, 2004
For all its wealth and diversity and its location in the cosmopolitan corridor between New York and Washington, recent reports have cast New Jersey as a racial backwater.
It is a state, critics and statistics suggest, where a lopsided share of black children have been dumped into special-education programs, where black adults disproportionately populate prisons, and where the concentrated poverty that fuels social ills is perpetuated by subtle forces and even the state’s own policies.
“Now they’re lynching you with housing or finances,” said painter Eric Brown, who has opened a show titled “Lynchings” at his Newark art gallery to coincide with Martin Luther King’s Birthday today. “We’re just being more sophisticated about it.”
In discussions of race in New Jersey with policy analysts and black community leaders in advance of the King holiday, two words kept coming up: Mount Laurel.
In the landmark case, named for the Burlington County township it involved, the New Jersey Supreme Court essentially ruled in 1977 and 1983 that municipalities must provide housing for people of low and moderate incomes. To abide by the ruling, the state created the Council on Affordable Housing to calculate how many affordable units each town would have to provide.
The program has generally been embraced by advocates for the poor and probably by most occupants of the 33,715 housing units built or under construction because of it.
Critics, however, say a provision allowing for so-called regional contribution agreements lets wealthy suburbs satisfy half of their affordable-housing requirement by paying to build units somewhere else.
Typically, critics say, that somewhere else already has a high concentration of poor people. In practical terms, they contend, that perpetuates racial segregation.
“We’ve been wrestling for over 20 years with this whole Mount Laurel situation, and we find that affordable housing is still not built in the suburbs,” said the Rev. Reginald T. Jackson, president of the Black Ministers Council of New Jersey.
Critics of regional contribution agreements include Roland Anglin, executive director of the New Jersey Public Policy Research Institute, which black business leaders founded in 1971 and is now affiliated with Rutgers University.
In 2002, Anglin published a study that concluded New Jersey had persistently high levels of segregation through the 1990s. The study said the Newark metropolitan area was the fifth most segregated in the nation.
“We need to desegregate. You need to deconcentrate these social ills,” Anglin said, adding, “We are very much appalled at how Mount Laurel has been implemented.”
Among the most stark disparities in New Jersey is in its prisons, where 81 percent of inmates in 2001 were black or Hispanic, according to a study by the Justice Policy Institute. That figure, in a state where black and Hispanic residents made up 27 percent of the population in 2001, prompted state Corrections Commissioner Devon Brown to quote others who have criticized prisons as “America’s new plantations.”
In schools, a report last month said black students in New Jersey were 3.6 times more likely to be classified as mentally retarded than white students and placed into special-education programs. That rate was higher than any other state’s.
Other studies have shown elevated retardation rates in impoverished areas, where families are less likely to have access to good health care and are more likely to be exposed to such hazards as lead paint.
Likewise, violent crime, drug abuse and other problems are also more likely to flourish in areas of concentrated poverty.
“These problems are so entrenched in society, and one of the reasons they’ve remained so entrenched, we’ve always applied half measures,” said Larry Hamm, executive director of the People’s Organization for Progress, a civil-rights group based in New Jersey. “In housing, we have Mount Laurel requirements for affordable housing, but municipalities are able to trade off half of the requirement.”
Eric Wilkinson, policy director at New Jersey Future, an affordable-housing advocate, said regional contribution agreements “have worked to concentrate poverty.”
But E.J. Miranda, a spokesman for the state Department of Community Affairs, which includes the Council on Affordable Housing, disputed that as “baseless, unfounded and irresponsible.”
He said the agreements had been “a key element of successful economic revitalization.”
They “have been used by 41 municipalities around the state — in urban, suburban and rural towns alike,” Miranda said.
Regional contribution agreements were created under the Fair Housing Act of 1985, and 8,699 housing units have been built as a result, he said.
Under a proposed rule change, municipalities would have the option of paying into a state-controlled pool that would coordinate the disbursal of money from regional contribution agreements to needy municipalities.
The New Jersey State League of Municipalities, which lobbies for the state’s 566 cities and suburbs, supports regional contribution agreements and opposes segregation, executive director Bill Dressel said.
He said the agreements had produced more low-and moderate-income housing. But ideally, he said, downtown areas should be rebuilt and made habitable for everyone, not just those in low-income areas.
“It’s easy to pick apart any one particular policy and say, ‘Oh, RCAs, they’re not responsible.’ But RCAs were never intended to be the solution to the total problem,” Dressel said.