Members of the state’s Legislative Black Caucus two weeks ago proposed legislation to establish a New Jersey Reparations Task Force. It would study how to compensate black residents for the harms from slavery and its consequences.
Gov. Phil Murphy said he would consider creating such a task force, presumably referring to possibly signing the bill if it passes the state Senate and Assembly.
New Jersey abolished slavery in 1804 in the early years of the American republic.
Assemblywoman Shavonda Sumter, D-Passaic, co-chair of the Legislative Black Caucus and co-sponsor of the bill, said slavery led years later to intentional harms to blacks such as housing policies, segregated schools, air pollution and lead contamination of drinking water.
Reparations for slavery are sure to be contentious. A Gallup poll in July found that more than two-thirds of Americans oppose paying cash reparations to blacks.
Sen. Ronald Rice, D-Essex, also a caucus co-chair and co-sponsor of the bill, said the payments won’t necessarily be money. The task force could decide they’ll take the form of educational support or housing assistance, he said, but still funded through state tax dollars.
Rev. Charles Boyer, founder of the organization Salvation and Social Justice, said official apologies for the state’s role in slavery and its after-effects haven’t been enough. The legislation is needed to determine “how New Jersey’s guilt and liability actually turns into something tangible.”
Whatever amount and form of compensation the task force proposed would face strong opposition. Making residents pay today for whatever was done by others 215 years ago and thereafter is sure to seem unfair and illegitimate to many.
There also would be the usual impediment of funding a large new program in a state that already is deeply in debt and can’t afford its existing fiscal obligations.
The task force also would be challenged to come up with a way to determine who is eligible for reparations.
In 2018, according to U.S. census data, 1.3 million N.J. residents considered themselves black or mixed race. Absent some intrusive genetic testing for eligibility, there seem to be only subjective ways to select those who would receive whatever compensation the task force recommends.
Nonetheless, U.S. Sen. Cory Booker and other candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination support paying reparations to blacks. Booker, who has introduced a similar bill at the federal level, has said he is descended from both slaves and slave owners.
Whether a slavery reparations task force would result in some kind of benefits for people selected by a yet-to-be imagined process is not at all sure and perhaps unlikely. There’s no question, though, that its effort would be divisive, maybe even politically destabilizing. It will be interesting to see how much support the bill gets from Murphy and legislative leaders, and how they explain their positions on it.