NEWARK, NJ - A largely African-American crowd in a packed church basement in Newark voiced impatience and exasperation with New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, calling on him to commit to a proposed social policy agenda after they overwhelmingly committed themselves to his election.
"Governor Phil Murphy got 94 percent of the black vote, and when you get 94 percent of a demographic's vote, you have to have specific plans to address the challenges that they face," said Ryan P. Haygood, president and CEO of the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, before an overflow audience at Mount Calvary Missionary Baptist Church on Saturday, noting the importance of the black ballot in Murphy's 2017 election win.
Haygood's reference to the 94 percent near-unanimous black political support for Gov. Phil Murphy underscores three critical policy concerns he and other African-Americans feel the progressive Democrat has yet to address since taking office in January: changing New Jersey's youth justice system, restoring the right to vote to people with criminal convictions, and closing the racial wealth gap.
Haygood underscored the rally's theme by citing statistics demonstrating racial disparities in wealth, voting access to the ballot box, and the systemic racism New Jersey's black community faces in the criminal justice system. For example, the median net worth of white families in New Jersey is $271,000, the highest in the nation, compared to $5,900 for black families. A black child in New Jersey is 30 times more likely to be incarcerated than a white child, the highest disparity in the nation. Currently, 100,000 people can’t vote in New Jersey because they have criminal convictions. Fifty percent of those who are denied the right to vote are black, although black people only comprise 15 percent of the state’s overall population.
"How'd that happen?" asked Haygood about of these concerns. "We brought these issues to Governor Murphy, and he said 'You know, I got 94 percent of the black vote."
A man in the capacity crowd of more than 400 people shouted out his response.
"How's that happen?", he said as the crowd burst out laughing.
The same question was asked by some members of the crowd when informed that Murphy issued an executive order on Friday afternoon, less than 24 hours before the scheduled rally, creating the Task Force for the Continued Transformation of Youth Justice.
The task force, made up of members from both the public and private sectors, will review policies and evaluate the state’s juvenile justice system. Among the stated objectives of the task force are improving and modernizing the state’s juvenile justice system, one of the main planks of the 94 percent platform.
“New Jersey has the shameful distinction of having the largest black-white youth incarceration gap in the nation,” said Murphy in a written statement. "We cannot and will not accept these inequities any longer. I’ve created this task force to ensure that New Jersey’s juvenile justice system reflects New Jersey values, including safety, dignity, and fairness.”
After the rally, Haygood noted that the task force, which is scheduled to issue a recommendation report within six months, was an "important first step" in addressing the state's racial disparities.
"I really appreciate that the governor heard us with the creation of a task force. But we're at the beginning of a very steep climb to transform a system that is entirely broken," Haygood said, expressing additional concerns about both the proposed closure and potential construction of juvenile prisons in New Jersey. "What you heard today is a room full of people who want to hold elected officials accountable, starting with the governor."
Prominent African-American leaders from throughout New Jersey were at the rally, including Richard T. Smith, president of the NAACP New Jersey State Conference, and the Rev. Dr. Charles F. Boyer, pastor of Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Woodbury and the executive director of Salvation and Social Justice, a nonprofit advocacy organization.
"The power of the black vote is its ability to swing elections," Boyer said, an allusion to the fact that Murphy captured less than 50 percent of the white vote in the 2017 gubernatorial election. "The cost of the black vote has been the blood of our ancestors and the future of our children."
Some notable Newarkers present examined the suggestion raised at the rally that the black vote has been taken for granted by Democratic politicians in the state.
"The Republican Party which we now see in the White House is engaged in some of the most retrograde action on equity that we've seen. But too often we've allowed the Democratic Party just to not be as bad as the Republican Party, versus affirmatively advancing social justice and racial equity," said Shavar Jeffries, a civil rights attorney. "Starting in our state, we want to move the agenda forward."
"The Democrats are taking advantage of us in one sense, just to assume that we'll always be Democrats and therefore supportive. But they're not taking advantage of all of the energy that you see in this room," said Junius Williams, director emeritus of the Abbott Leadership Institute (ALI) at Rutgers-Newark. "We have a real threat to democracy coming down the pike. We need to have to people who can offset that. Unless the Democratic Party makes room for what you see here today, we're in trouble."
Newark resident Quan'ye White, 17, will soon have the right to vote. For White, a member of the ALI's Youth Media Symposium, trouble for Democratic leadership can have more than one meaning.
"To the man who's not here right now, Phil Murphy: How will you fulfill your promise to the children of the 94 percent who got you here?" said White, a junior at North Star Academy in Newark. "The children of the 94 percent didn't vote you in. But we can vote you out."