NJ’s Blue State Status Does Not Inhibit Segregation in Schools

Montclair

New Jersey doesn’t want to be on this top-20 list. Right before the pandemic, a University of California at Los Angeles civil rights project placed the Garden State sixth on the list when it comes to having the most segregated school systems in the nation. 

The placement has surprised many since New Jersey is a blue state. Even more concerning, the “Harming Our Common Future: America’s Segregated Schools 65 years after Brown” study put three other blue states — New York, California and Illinois — at the top of the list. 

The Garden State’s ranking was released by UCLA as a public policy research class at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Madison, New Jersey, was starting its own project. For two and a half years, students taking the FDU course have been looking into residential segregation in New Jersey, which in most cases leads to school segregation. 

Madelyn Ferrans, special lecturer and former Essex County Executive Peter Shapiro and the author of The Prize, Dale Russakoff, are the instructors of the course. Nearly 20 undergraduate students, using U.S. Census data from 2000 to 2019, worked on the “Examining residential segregation within New Jersey” project this past semester. Their research continues, and so far, some of the information they’ve uncovered is troubling. 

“When you break it down in the 565 towns or municipalities that makeup New Jersey, you find that the overwhelming number of them are segregated,” Shapiro said. “You find towns having very few Blacks and towns having a fairly large Black population.”

Shapiro says the project intentionally focused on New Jersey’s Black population. 

“Why focus on the Black community, particularly?” Shapiro explained,  “because as you look at the Black community, it has been distinctly discriminated against for the longest time. The persistent, malignant discrimination against Black people has gone on and still remains unresolved.” 

Shapiro says New Jersey’s demographics closely resemble the nation’s — over 60 percent white, roughly 13 percent Black, and about 19 percent Hispanic. There’s also a significant Asian population in the Garden State.

The FDU class project discovered that residential segregation is a serious problem in Essex County. Students are honing in on Essex County communities where there’s a stark contrast. They’re examining towns that are so close to each other but where the population makeup is so different that it’s almost shocking. 

For instance, when students examined East Orange and Millburn, two Essex County municipalities that are just five miles apart, they found that almost 90 percent of the population in East Orange is Black while Millburn, which includes Short Hills, has less than a 2-percent Black population. 

Also in Essex County, Orange’s population is almost 80 percent Black while five miles away Nutley’s is 82 percent white. Irvington’s almost 86 percent Black while Glen Ridge is over 85 percent white.

Millburn in particular routinely places high on the list of the best high schools in New Jersey. East Orange, Orange and Irvington do not. Home owners in wealthy Millburn pay one of the highest property taxes in the state. Property taxes determine school funding in New Jersey. The economic disparities between some Black and white communities in the Garden State are so severe that New Jersey Supreme Court ruling Abbott v. Burke requires the state to fully fund Abbott districts like East Orange. The Garden State has 31 Abbott School Districts. 

Shapiro says New Jersey has done a good job of equalizing financial resources between school districts, directing considerable state aid to Abbott districts that don’t bring in a tremendous amount of property taxes. However, he also adds, “the fundamental truth is schools will be segregated if towns are segregated.”

Jasmine Lattimore is one of the students taking the public policy research class at FDU. The college senior blames New Jersey’s residential segregation on historical discrimination in housing.

“In the way that people were forced or motivated to move into certain neighborhoods and that is long-lasting,” Lattimore said. “It doesn’t stop there and doesn’t end just because the policies have gone away and because the statutes have changed. It’s the result in wealth discrimination and it continues down the line. So it’s not always a choice for people to move into a certain neighborhood. It’s based on their income, based on their class.”

Lattimore, who grew up in North Plainfield, says she’s not surprised with the information she and her classmates uncovered. But she adds the statistics were startling. 

“What was actually shocking was the numbers and seeing the breakdown of how many (towns) have zero percent Black residents,” Lattimore said. “That’s what was shocking.

“I think you see it when you do sports. I did sports in high school and went to different schools. You would see the teams, the fans were either mostly white or mostly Black  – sometimes you’d get a diverse school.” 

Salvatore Amico also took the public policy research course. The FDU junior says the findings made him realize the lack of diversity in his Sussex County town hurt him. 

“I had this privilege where I actually didn’t have to think about it and actually seeing the numbers and reading them, it’s really disheartening to see all of this,” Amico said. “I feel guilty having not learned about it earlier and doing more about it.”

There are sharp differences in Camden County communities, as well.  Ninety percent of Lawnside’s population is Black, while five miles away, Haddonfield’s population is 95 percent white. Lawnside holds an important place in America’s history. During the Civil War, it played a crucial role in the Underground Railroad. The town was a refuge for enslaved people seeking freedom. In 1840, it became the first independent, self-governing Black town north of the Mason-Dixon Line. 

In Morris and Union counties respectively, Chatham Borough and Westfield both have populations that are more than 95 percent white while Union’s Roselle Borough has a higher Black population.  North Plainfield, though, is one of the more diverse communities. 

“Knowing that other people, five miles from me, ten miles from me, didn’t have that same experience and are now going into the real world and don’t have the same skills and interpersonal relationship skills that I grew up with — that’s disappointing,” said Lattimore, who attended North Plainfield High School. 

The class also conducted virtual focus group interviews and looked at Fairleigh Dickinson University polls on residential segregation. Peter Woolley, the director of the School of Public and Global Affairs at FDU says most of the people interviewed or polled — both Black and white — didn’t see residential segregation as a problem in New Jersey.

“What you find is this pattern of people saying my schools are not segregated but then they say my town is mostly white, or my town is mostly Black,” Woolley said. “So, we know in New Jersey if your town is mostly white your school is white, and if your town is mostly Black, your school is Black. The point is they didn’t see what’s right in front of them. It doesn’t exist.

“That’s why it’s an invisible problem for the politicians in New Jersey because the public doesn’t see it as a problem. In a follow up question, we asked, ‘do you think there is enough integration in your town or are you fine with things the way they are?’ The overwhelming response from people — white, Black or other — was that they’re fine with the way things are.”

Shapiro says students got a diversity of opinions from focus group members. One comment in particular, he says, brought a smile to his face.

“One of the residents of the heavily Black communities said, ‘I want a diverse place to live, a place that’s 25 percent African-American, 25 percent Caribbean and 25 percent more diverse Black people,'” said Shapiro, relaying one focus group member’s answer. “That was an unusual response.

“Then, we had (Black focus group members) saying, ‘it’s not just numbers, I want to make sure I am included.’”

Assemblyman Gordon Johnson (D-37) says segregation is the result of  housing discrimination in New Jersey. 

“This goes back to housing 30 to 50 years ago and when minorities couldn’t move into certain towns,” said Johnson, who’s the Democratic nominee running for the state Senate seat Loretta Weinberg will leave when she retires next year. 

In a recent story, Senator Weinberg and her friend, Civil Rights activist and retired teacher Mrs. Theodora Lacey, told us about their valiant efforts that led to the integration of Teaneck’s school system in the 1960s.  In 1964, Teaneck became the first school district in the nation to voluntarily integrate its schools without a court mandate. The boots-on-the-ground movement was unique and a success, and changed the lives of both Black and white students in the township. However, Teaneck’s school system today is not integrated because many white residents are sending their children to private schools because of religious reasons. 

“I venture to guess most of our neighborhoods are integrated,” said Senator Weinberg, describing her township of Teaneck. “But the assumption is white people are not moving in to put their kids in school.”

The FDU class is looking for possible solutions to the ugly issue of residential segregation, and students don’t think it’s all about the government getting involved.

“It does go back to education and not just educating people, our age or in high schools, but we also talked about re-educating realtors — changing the way that they are dealing with showing houses in certain neighborhoods,” Lattimore said. 

“It may be more local officials,” Shapiro added. “It may be more neighborhood organizations. It may be more realtors, as Jasmine mentioned. It may be just establishing more welcoming communities — we’re open and we’re tolerant and welcoming. We want our children to grow up in a place where they meet people, other races, and begin the process of living together well.”

Amico says New Jersey residents also need to be educated. 

“They’re not being told that racial segregation is a huge issue in New Jersey and that residential segregation is something that still exists,” Amico added. “It’s something that they’re not exposed to — even state legislators. It’s not something that’s talked about nearly enough. It gets swept under the rug a lot.

“I feel if we had more discussions about it — which I hope this class will result in —  and have more people care about state issues, especially residential segregation, we may make some headway.” 

The students are also hoping lawmakers in Trenton start talking about this invisible problem. When Governor Phil Murphy secured the Democratic nomination again this summer, we asked him about school segregation. He didn’t want to talk about it but added that his administration is working on this important issue. We reached out to other lawmakers for this story but they haven’t gotten back to us.  

The FDU students are determined to open lots of eyes at the Statehouse when they finally release their findings to the public in the next several months. In the meantime, Lattimore and Amico are also focusing on some of their positive findings, including New Jersey towns that are becoming more integrated. 

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