New Jersey is Ground Zero: Black Leaders Take Aim at an Unlikely Adversary

Courtesy of The New Jersey Black Economic Justice Coalition
New Jersey, a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans two-to-one, has suddenly be-come a battleground state in the minds of local and national social justice and Black business leaders.

New Jersey is Ground Zero for Economic Injustice
In four virtual town hall meetings organized by Rev. Dr. David Jefferson, pastor of the iconic Metropolitan Baptist Church in Newark; and Jacob Walthour, CEO of Newark’s Blueprint Capital Advisors, some of the nation’s most powerful business, media, and social justice leaders, including National Urban League President Marc Morial, Rev. Al Sharpton of National Action Network, Radio Host/Social Justice Leader Jennifer Jones Austin, Nationally Syndicated Talk Show Host Roland Martin, Money Manager John Rogers and billionaire Robert Smith, CEO of Vista Equity Partners have voiced support for the effort to create sustainable Black communities, and in addition, sent messages to the democratic establishment. They believe the Black vote must not be given away cheaply to the governor or any other elected official in New Jersey.

“It is imperative we use this moment in time where there is an awareness. We can change this dynamic. We can change the wealth dynamic in our community and the time is now,” said Smith.

An Unlikely Adversary
These leaders are not fighting their traditional adversary, the Republican Party, and its orbit of conservative minded party leaders like Senator Mitch McConnell and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

The administration of Governor Phil Murphy has been under attack from local civil rights groups and cler-gy on a number of issues including school segregation, COVID-19 vaccine distribution, marijuana decriminal-ization, and the administration’s refusal to release data detailing how much business it does with Black busi-nesses. They feel the governor made promises during his campaign, but has betrayed the very community that elected him to office in 2017 when he received 94% of the Black vote.

Democratic leaders such as State Senate President Stephen Sweeney and former New Jersey Black Caucus Leader Ronald Rice have responded with commitments to sponsor legislation to bring about government ac-countability and economic parity.

Silence among Murphy and Democrats
According to Walthour, the Murphy Administration has not offered any support for the town halls or developed a plan for Black communities like Newark, where over one-third of the population lives in poverty. A number of Black elected officials, community, and business lead-ers have declined to participate in the town halls, which over 50,000 consumers on Facebook, YouTube, and other streaming platforms have seen.

“The unwillingness of some leaders to join us and their silence on these important economic issues can only be attributed to their fear of retribution from Murphy and the prioritization of their own self-interests over that of their constituencies,” said Walthour.

He knows firsthand the power of the Murphy administration’s threats and their willingness to deliver on them. His firm has filed a federal lawsuit in New Jersey against Governor Murphy, Division of Investment Director Co-rey Amon, Chief of Staff George Helmy, and others who he alleges have discriminated against his firm and others owned by Blacks and women. When he complained about the unlawful treatment, the state defendants retaliated by refusing to honor his contract and directly reaching out to his clients in order to interfere in those relationships.

Both Senators Rice and Sweeney have been vocal about the need for the Murphy administration to address the Blueprint legal matter, which is now becoming a central issue in the 2021 election. Murphy has denied any wrongdoing, but attorneys representing the state have refused to turn over emails and other documents Walthour says will prove his firm’s allegations.

“Phil Murphy and his staff think they can treat Black people any way they want. We are placing our faith in the court system to do the right things like releasing the public documents because he won’t,” exclaimed Walthour. “If his staff is telling the truth then he should not fear producing public documents,” he concluded.

Sharpton’s Sharp Warning
The National Action Network’s Rev. Al Sharpton kicked off the latest meeting with a direct call for Black voters in New Jersey and elsewhere to make economic parity an election issue. “Not enough focus has been put on the fact that many of those who are running for office in New Jersey this year can promise charity but not parity,” said Sharpton. “We are giving our votes away too cheaply. You cannot have us elect you and then you do business in a segregated way,” he said. “We should not deal with folks who are not in business with us. If you are not in business with us, then you have business with those that may be adversarial to our interests; you ought to go get your votes from them,” Sharpton concluded.

Jefferson, who also serves as New Jersey president of National Action Network and legal counsel to Blueprint, is spearheading the plan. He said, “We will draft a pledge to get every elected official to make a commitment to economic justice legislation before individuals vote for them.” Jefferson and Walthour have created the New Jersey Black Economic Justice Coalition, which will host events including additional town halls, debates, and rallies to educate and inspire Black communities to fight for their share of the economic pie in the state.

Access to Capital Is Access to Opportunity
While Sharpton focused on the political solution, the billionaire private equity investor and philanthropist Robert F. Smith focused on the financial and technological needs of Black businesses who struggle to scale without access to capital from banks, pension funds, and other financial institutions. Smith also warned that the near future would require businesses to digitize, modernize, and use soft-ware in order to thrive in the “new economy.” According to Smith, over 70% of Black communities do not have a bank branch. He also discussed the US pension system including state, local, and federal monies, which has a total of $19 trillion in assets. Smith said despite the significant contributions by Black teachers and other public employees, Black asset professionals manage less than 1%.

“The access to capital is access to opportunity. It has been something our community has been starved of,” said Smith. ”If we don’t have access to the banks and the banking system to support the financial architecture and we don’t have access to managing capital to drive the re-turns of that capital into our infrastructure, we will continue to starve the infrastructure of our community.”

It’s Our Money
Nationally Syndicated Talk Show Host Roland Martin has moderated two of the panels. He leveraged Smith’s comments and added, “For folks who are watching, that may have gone over their heads when you say $19 trillion in pension funds. If you know somebody who is a teacher or a firefighter, a police officer—they could be a secretary or an administrative assistant for the state or federal government— they all have pensions. It is estimated that 40% of people who are part of the pension system in New Jersey are African American,” Martin said. “And so what’s happening is we have white folks at every level managing, directing, and controlling those funds.”

Sharpton remarked, ”What effectively happens is white developers go to pension funds to borrow money to do their development. They take that money, go into the communities and do their development. So grand-ma’s pension is being used to gentrify grandma out of her own community.” Martin added, “And, so essential-ly, the work of Black people, everyday Black people, is funding all these things across the country and largely white people are benefiting and becoming billionaires and millionaires.

Institutional Barriers Must Be Addressed
Racial and Social Justice Advocate, Radio Host, Chair of the New York City Racial Justice Commission, and daughter of legendary pastor and civil rights leader William Augustus Jones, Jennifer Jones Austin brought attention to the public policies, laws, and methods that government agencies use to systematically exclude Black businesses from winning government contracts. “We need to break down the structural and institutional barriers,” said Austin. “If you get it into the laws, it becomes the way things have to be done. Fifty to sixty percent of our households have women as primary breadwinners who have depressed wages. Our children are growing up in poverty and we don’t have enough to make ends meet. They can’t even think about raising the capital to take ad-vantage of some of these wealth building opportunities.

John Rogers, the nation’s longest standing Black asset manager, said that institutions must consider Black law firms and accounting firms and stop considering Black people only qualified for janitorial, construction, and catering contracts. He believes the focus of the economic justice movement has to extend beyond government and must target hospitals, universities, and museums that re-ceive federal funds to make sure those institutions have contracts with Black businesses.

“We have to get these institutions to do the right thing,” said Rogers. “We need to get those contracts. The fight for Black business and economic survival is now. I’d say it’s a modern-day Jim Crow. Black and Brown people get to do catering and construction, which are import-ant, while the White guys get all of the other opportuni-ties in private equity and hedge funds and technology to become billionaires.”