Each of us has diverse origins – cultural, geographical, and socioeconomic. While our life journeys differ and take us to different places, it’s safe to say that we all strive to achieve a healthy life — physically, mentally, spiritually, financially, and socially.

Yet, for many, the journey comes with barriers in the form of discriminatory and racist policies and practices that stand in the way of well-being.

New Jersey has made significant investments to combat disparities, but funding isn’t enough if equity isn’t addressed. For every New Jerseyan to live their healthiest life, we must remove the racial barriers that fuel race-based disparities.

Available for all New Jerseyans to access and read, A Policy Agenda for a Healthier, More Equitable New Jersey,  a recent report from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, reveals evidence-based, data-driven analyses revealing the history of racism that remains embedded in New Jersey’s policies and practices.  

My Family’s Experience

Like too many Black people, my great-grandfather, John Parrish, experienced the impact of discriminatory policies that interfered with his ability to own a home – an issue that still exists today for communities of color.

New Jersey has a history of discriminatory housing policies that include redlining, restrictive covenants, and exclusionary zoning.

Less than a century ago, unlike some prominent Black people who were able to obtain small mortgage loans, my great-grandfather had no choice but to rely on luck. He eventually hit the jackpot by “playing the numbers”— an underground economy that served as a daily lottery game for many black communities for decades — and won enough to afford a house in Newark. Without that, there was a slim opportunity for a working-class Black man to defy a system that marginalized people of color through redlining and other discriminatory practices.

The family home was a tremendous source of pride and accomplishment for my great-grandfather. It was a place of safety and joy, where our family created lasting memories, especially while gathering for family meals. After my great-grandfather passed away, he left the house to his son-in-law – my grandfather – who lived there for many years, raising his own family, until community violence disrupted their peace and forced him to sell the family home and move. 

While my grandfather, a postal worker in Irvington, had decent health insurance, it wasn’t enough to pay for mounting needs as he aged. He eventually arrived at an agonizing decision to use the proceeds saved from the sale of the family home to cover his long-term healthcare. Sadly, this meant that the hard-earned family wealth was depleted rather than passed on to the next generation.

New Jersey’s Landscape

The median household income of white families is 18 times more than Black families’ median household income.  

That was many years ago, yet this situation remains a disheartening reality for many people of color in New Jersey. In 2022, the median household wealth of white families in New Jersey was $322,500, compared with $17,600 for Black families and $26,100 for Latino families, according to a report by the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice. Many continue to find their ability to inherit assets and accumulate generational wealth thwarted by racist policies and practices. Too often, the stability and well-being associated with home ownership lasts just one generation — if that.

Over two-thirds of New Jerseyans associate safe, affordable, stable housing with a healthy life.

According to a 2022 poll of New Jersey residents from the Eagleton Center for Public Interest Polling at Rutgers University and RWJF, 77% of respondents believe safe, affordable, stable housing has a “major influence” on a person’s ability to lead a healthy life. Barriers to obtaining a good place to live due to discriminatory practices significantly limit economic, social and personal growth.

New Jersey must develop and advance equity-based policies that respond to the history, experiences, and realities of people and families of color. Had such policies existed in my great-grandfather’s day, my family’s story could have been different.

Had he been treated equitably – without regard to prestige and skin color — he might have secured a traditional mortgage, avoiding the burden and stress associated with having to pay in cash, upfront. If we recognized neighborhood decline as a systemic issue and not as a personal failure, my grandfather might have been able to hold onto and pass down a home, in Newark or elsewhere, as a part of our family’s generational wealth.

New Jersey Policy Priorities

Laws and policies created by people are at the root of historical injustices. So, people have the power to drive societal improvements and transformative change to advance health and racial equity across our state.

The recommendations included in A Policy Agenda for a Healthier, More Equitable New Jersey are designed to ensure policymakers and leaders consider equity in all policies, so all New Jerseyans have a safe, affordable place to live in a neighborhood of their choosing, high-quality healthcare, and power over decisions affecting their lives.

All New Jerseyans have a role to play in creating a more equitable state

No single organization or group can repair historic policies and practices and implement innovative solutions to achieve a more equitable society. All New Jerseyans have a role to play — and that starts with acknowledging that structural racism exists in policies, systems, and practices and has thwarted the ability of people of color to achieve their healthiest lives.

A history of racial inequity runs deep in New Jersey. Together we can manifest a more equitable reality in our home state.

About Maisha Simmons: “I’m the director of New Jersey grantmaking at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, where my work centers on making the Foundation’s home state — and mine — the healthiest, most equitable state possible. My aim has always been to ‘keep communities in the picture.’ Prior to my current position with the Foundation, I was senior director of foundation relations with the NAACP, where I managed and facilitated relationships with foundations and other key partners to implement core NAACP programing.”

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Maisha Simmons is the director of New Jersey grantmaking at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and former senior director of foundation relations with the NAACP.

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