It may surprise those who regard New Jersey as a progressive state, but our public schools are more harshly segregated by race than those in Mississippi, Alabama, or any state of the former Confederacy.
That hurts Black and brown kids, as a million studies have found. And it hurts white kids, too, by creating a racially homogenous cocoon that leaves them unprepared for life in America.
So, three years ago, a group of progressive activists and parents filed suit, joined by former Supreme Court Justice Gary Stein. They figured a governor like Phil Murphy presented the best chance in a generation to do something about it.
The surprise is that Murphy has fought the suit like a wildcat, using every trick to delay the case, and refusing to even concede that our schools are segregated.
“These are Southern segregationist tactics that our progressive governor is using to kick the can down the road,” says the Rev. Charles Boyer, a leading voice in the Black community. “That’s literally what’s happening and it’s immensely disappointing, a major failure of this administration.”
At a hearing Thursday in Mercer County Superior Court, lawyers for the governor asked for more delay, another 210 days to depose parents, superintendents, and experts. As it happens, that would push the discovery process just past the November election. In the end, Judge Mary Jacobsen granted them about half that time.
I would love to describe Murphy’s thinking, but he is taking advantage of the lawsuit to claim that he can’t talk about the issue at all. I asked in writing if he feels the schools are segregated, and if he has any plans to address that problem, independent of the lawsuit. No comment, his office said, “due to the pending litigation.”
Keep in mind, it’s been pending for three years, and could go on a lot longer. So, the governor has basically exempted himself from this discussion for his entire first term, and a chunk of his second, should he win re-election as expected. If his goal is cynical, to sidestep an issue that sparks volcanic emotion on all sides, then it may just work out, for him. Not so much for the students, though.
“What’s so discouraging about this governor, who was on the national board of the NAACP, is that he’s ducked this issue, and delayed and obfuscated,” says Elise Boddie, a law professor at Rutgers and leading civil rights attorney who is advising the plaintiffs.
“If we’re thinking about what we can do to address the deep divisions in this country, it has to start in the system of public education. That’s where kids learn to play together. That’s where kids learn to listen to another. That’s where they learn not to fear differences.”
Here’s a look at the facts on the ground, using state data cited by plaintiffs in this case: 25 percent of Black students in New Jersey attend schools where white students make up less than 1 percent of the student body. Another 25 percent attend schools where white students make up less than 10 percent.
For Latino students, the numbers are less severe, but still striking. Nearly 60 percent attend schools that are at least 80 percent non-white.
The plaintiffs hoped that the first stage would be easy, that the Murphy administration would admit segregation exists, in violation of the Constitution. The meat of the exercise, they thought, would come in a second phase when they discuss remedies. That two-stage process would follow the pattern on inequity in school finances – the Supreme Court struck down the status quo as unconstitutional and asked the governor and Legislature to devise solutions.
“I’ve been surprised at the administration’s reaction to this,” says Larry Lustberg, a lead attorney in this case and other ground-breaking civil rights cases in the past, including gay marriage. “We’ve told them, ‘We’re not blaming you. But seize this opportunity. Be great, be historic.’ And far from doing that, they’ve fought this like it’s a slip and-and-fall case. Their response to this case is just tragic.”
No one is proposing forced busing, as in Boston during the 1970s. The hope is for the more modest measures that have been successful in other states and cities, like allowing more urban kids to attend suburban schools, or building magnet schools near borders that would draw students from neighboring districts, or merging contiguous districts to mix races. New Jersey has dabbled with each of those solutions, but it would take a more vigorous and sustained effort to make a real dent in the problem. During failed settlement talks in 2019, the Murphy administration declined to spell out solutions.
It’s a discussion this state needs to have, but one that Murphy is blocking for now.
“I’ve been so frustrated with this governor,” Boddie says. “This is an opportunity to get ahead of this.”
Boyer says the governor, on balance, has been a good friend to the Black community. He cited criminal justice reform, a higher minimum wage, limits on solitary confinement, legalization of marijuana, and college scholarships. But on this core issue, he says, the governor is tarnishing that legacy.
“Everyone knows there is no getting around the fact that this is wrong and unconscionable,” Boyer said, referring to the segregation. “And now he’s stalling it, knowingly and actively. The Murphy administration is not complicit when it comes to how we got here. But they are certainly complicit now in the fact that we are staying here.”
In a lecture last year at University of California at Berkeley, Boddie, who is Black, contrasted the attitudes of whites in the North and South by quoting an old saying: “In the South, they’ll let you get close but not too high,” she said. “And in the North, they’ll let you get high but not too close.”
We can do better, and this moment in our history demands it. The irony is that our “progressive” governor is holding us back.
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Tom Moran may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tomamoran. Find NJ.com Opinion on Facebook.