New Jersey should step up on civil rights as Washington steps down | Opinion

Rev. Charles Boyer of the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Woodbury, N.J., speaks during a news conference announcing a school desegregation lawsuit against the state of New Jersey at the state house in Trenton, N.J., on Thursday, May 17, 2018. A group of civil rights and religious leaders, led by former New Jersey Supreme Court Justice Gary Stein, alleges that the state's public schools remain segregated due to a law requiring children to attend their neighborhood schools coupled with existing housing segregation.

When I joined with a broad coalition of faith and community leaders last year to form the New Jersey Black Multi-Faith Alliance, we wanted to advance an agenda empowering people of color across our state.

Families of color have long struggled to get ahead in a state where systemic racism has shut us out of opportunities to join the middle class and prevented us from moving into thriving suburban communities.

While New Jersey families as a whole enjoy median household incomes of more than $75,000 a year,  black families take home only $46,800 annually, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey.

Our alliance is working with elected leaders in Trenton to find real solutions expanding opportunities for our communities. We are particularly gratified that Gov. Murphy ran on a campaign of fairness and equity for all New Jerseyans and that legislative leaders have committed themselves to the same goals.

Among our chief objectives is enforcing our state’s fair housing laws.

Our fight isn’t just about which towns people may live in — it’s about giving them the tools to succeed and thrive.

Zip code strongly influences destiny. The neighborhood in which a family lives helps determine whether they send their kids to high-performing schools or get a better job.

Our state has among the strongest fair housing laws in the country, thanks to the Mount Laurel doctrine, a provision of our constitution that prevents towns from implementing zoning laws meant to exclude working families, people with disabilities and families of color.

And while gridlock in Trenton prevented those laws from being enforced properly for 16 long years, a series of state Supreme Court rulings since 2015 has gotten the process back on track.

More than 215 towns across New Jersey, including such municipalities as Moorestown and Mount Laurel, have fair housing agreements in place. These will allow construction of thousands of new homes for working families over the next decade in safe neighborhoods with good schools and access to jobs.

These settlement agreements harness the power of the public, nonprofit, and private sectors to make sure development occurs in an equitable fashion. As towns turn vacant office parks and crumbling industrial sites into vibrant new communities with shopping and dining options, the Mount Laurel doctrine ensures the people who work at these new establishments can afford to live nearby.

In a state with some of the nation’s highest housing costs, fair housing laws ensure that medical assistants, supermarket employees and waitresses can afford to live in New Jersey.

This doesn’t just provide key industries, such as tourism and the service and health care sectors with employees, it’s also a fundamental matter of economic justice.

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is remembered as one of history’s foremost civil rights champions. But what is less understood about Dr. King’s legacy is the strong connection he forged between civil rights and the ability to live and work with dignity.

He knew that eliminating outright segregation in public accommodations and in the voting booth was not enough and must go hand in hand with expanding access to economic opportunities. In fact, Dr. King was assassinated as he was rallying sanitation workers in Memphis striking for equal wages and better working conditions.

Strong housing laws are one of the best ways we can build on this legacy and dismantle a discriminatory housing framework that has made New Jersey one of the most segregated states in the nation.

The current affordable housing process is delivering real results for families as towns from Mahwah to Moorestown agree to strike down artificial zoning barriers that reinforce discrimination and foster segregation.

This is particularly striking when compared with what is going on at the federal level, where President Trump and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson are launching an unprecedented attack on our nation’s fair housing laws.

They are seeking to undo the progress we made under the administration of President Barack Obama and are trying to ram through new policies that would increase segregation and decrease choices for families of color and the poor.

The Trump administration wants to make it easier for towns, developers and mortgage companies to continue discriminating.

At a time when our core civil rights are under attack in Washington, we need to work together in New Jersey to fill that void by shoring up the Mount Laurel doctrine and bringing our state’s remaining towns to the table to negotiate fair settlement agreements that put an end to discriminatory housing practices and open up new opportunities for families of every color and socioeconomic status.

The Rev. Charles F. Boyer is pastor of Bethel A.M.E. Church in Woodbury and co-convener of the New Jersey Black Multi-Faith Alliance.