If Not Now, Then When?
Racism, Poverty, and the Struggle for Equal Rights

It has been a year since we witnessed the brutal public execution of George Floyd at the hands of a former Minneapolis police officer, painting for all a clear picture of the horrible and shameful reality of racism and injustice in America. George Floyd’s murder and the public protests it sparked helped advocates launch the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, federal legislation that aims to bring important civil rights and police reform and was introduced in February. It has yet to become law.

And last month, the nation watched as a jury returned a verdict against the former officer finding him guilty of murder and manslaughter. That moment in history contrasted with a “not guilty” verdict returned by a jury on April 29, 1992 in Los Angeles, almost three decades ago, acquitting three officers of the brutal beating of Black motorist Rodney King. Yet, a guilty verdict cannot bring Mr. Floyd back to life. His murder, and the collective apprehension that a rightful verdict might not be returned, are painful reminders of the nation’s history of oppression and racism that still exists today and permeate our legal system, here and now. As Vice-President Kamala Harris stated in her address shortly after the verdict, “a measure of justice isn’t the same as equal justice.”

After nearly 250 years of slavery, 100 years of legalized segregation and “Jim Crow” laws, Black Americans still disproportionately suffer society’s worst conditions nationwide. This is decisively the case in New Jersey, where the income and wealth gap is frighteningly stark, communities and schools remain segregated, and Black and brown people disproportionately fill our prisons and jails. Even now, as the world is gripped by a massive pandemic which has forced governments to react, businesses to close, and people to keep socially distant, its disproportionate effects on communities of color lay these inequities bare. That disparity includes tragic health consequences and devastating economic impact.1

In the past fifty years, the difference in nationwide median household incomes between White and Black Americans has reportedly grown from $23,800 (in 1970) to $33,000 (in 2018, both measured in 2018 dollars).2 Closer to home, racial and ethnic income disparities have been increasing in New Jersey since the Great Recession.3 During this period, declines in median household income have been disproportionately larger for Black and Hispanic households than for white non-Hispanics. In 2010, the income gap between whites and Black New Jerseyans measured at just over $30,000; in 2019, the income gap increased to nearly $42,000. Over the same period, the income gap between white and Hispanic households grew from $29,000 in 2010 to over $36,000 in 2019. In other words, between 2010 and 2019, the income gap between white and Black New Jerseyans grew by 39 percent, and between white and Hispanic residents by 27 percent.4 But there is also a frightening wealth disparity in the country. Data from the 2019 Survey of Consumer Finances shows that a typical white family has eight times the wealth of the typical Black family and five times the wealth of the typical Hispanic family.5

Although school segregation was ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court decades ago in Brown v. Board of Education6, persistent conditions have nevertheless resulted in widespread “de facto” segregation.7 Despite growing overall diversity, in its 2017 report, the UCLA Civil Rights Project ranked New Jersey as the sixth-most segregated state in the nation for Black students, noting a doubling of the percentage of “apartheid schools” (schools where less than 1 percent of the students are white) since 1989.8 Segregated schools are seen as a result of decades of residential segregation, and the general structure of cities, suburbs and the 585 school districts in New Jersey. The result is not only fewer educational resources for black children in less affluent communities, but missed opportunities to enrich the learning process and foster understanding of racial differences through diverse classroom and school interactions.

In a state where Black people comprise 14% of the total adult population, nearly two thirds of the total prison population in New Jersey is Black. The disparity is even worse in juvenile detention facilities, where Blacks comprise nearly 75% of the population. This “deep end” problem, in part, flows from disproportionate policing of urban minority communities, disparate treatment and inequities in the court system, and simply put, mass incarceration itself.9 Even for those who are not sentenced to prison or jail terms, simply having a criminal conviction can create numerous impenetrable barriers to employment, housing, finance and access to education. Meanwhile, the prison industry profits off of this structural racism. According to U.S. Bureau of Justice statistics, while expenditures for the courts, prosecution and public defense have been steadily increasing between 1982 and 2006, public spending on police has more than quadrupled.10 Yet, study after study has shown that incarceration and punitive approaches to crime are less effective than rehabilitation, training and access to employment.11

It bears noting that disproportionate policing is intrinsically tied to segregated housing and the wealth gap. For example, while drug usage rates are fairly level across races, a Black child in the city of Newark is more likely to be targeted and arrested for marijuana possession than a white child in Berkeley Heights.12 And although New Jersey recently passed legislation decriminalizing and legalizing marijuana, data from other states that have rolled back marijuana prohibition shows that racial disparities in arrests persist.13

These conditions are not new. But, to the extent that recent events have shined a light on the problems, now is the time to act. While millions nationwide protest persistent and deplorable conditions for Black people, and communities of color, it should be acknowledged that protest is not only a right, but a critical necessity in the history of advancing social justice. During the late 1950’s and 1960’s, for example, throngs of people took to the streets in peaceful protest, demonstrations, and boycotts, which were often met with violent and immediate law enforcement response. Nevertheless, they persisted, and these actions helped fuel passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, prohibiting racial discrimination, outlawing segregation in schools and discrimination in employment and public accommodations.14

Racism is a horrible stain on our legacy. It does not need to be indelible. Fundamental human and civil rights, dignity, respect and fair treatment, access to economic and educational opportunities, and equal justice must be possible for all people. We all must be agents of economic and political change in our communities, organizations and statewide in various socio-economic contexts. While we may have found some relief in the conviction of a former law enforcement officer in Minneapolis, if conditions do not improve for those without equal opportunities, those whose justice is denied, and those that are shown time and time again that their lives do not matter, it will be our shame that we missed an opportunity to capture change and failed to deliver on a promise of a fair and equitable society.

For 55 years, Legal Services in New Jersey has worked to combat all forms of discrimination, and to secure economic and social justice for all disadvantaged, oppressed and vulnerable people. Our staff and volunteers will continue to attack every form of discrimination and fight to secure justice for all. This work is carried out by all Legal Services staff, every day, in every part of this state.

2 Pew Research Center,
3 Poverty Research Institute Income Inequality Study (2014),
4 Calculations by the LSNJPRI using U.S. Census Bureau data, 2019 American Community Survey, One-year estimates.
7 Orfield, G., et al, New Jersey’s Segregated Schools: Trends and Paths Forward, UCLA Civil Rights Project (2017), available at:
8 Ibid. at p.16.
9 Solomon, D., The Intersection of Policing and Race, Center for American Progress (2016) available at:; Hinton, E.K., et al., An Unjust Burden: The Disparate Treatment of Black Americans in the Criminal Justice System, Vera Institute of Justice (2018) available at:; Sawyer, W., Visualizing the Racial Disparities in Mass Incarceration, Prison Policy Initiative (2020) available at:
10 U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, May 2002.
11 Aaron, B., Prisons are Failing. It’s Time to Find an Alternative, World Economic Forum (2019), Available at:
12 Edwards, E., et al, A Tale of Two Countries: Racially Targeted Arrests in the Era of Marijuana Reform, ACLU Research Report (2020), available at:
13 Ibid, 8.
14 See Transcript of Civil Rights Act (1964) available at: