By Vin Gopal, Eric Houghtaling and Joann Downey
We celebrate Black History month this year with a heightened sense of the need to make equity a primary goal in all of the legislation we propose and support.
The COVID-19 public health emergency and the social unrest that has divided the country over the past year have shined a spotlight on the racial divide in America. We must bridge this gap.
That’s why we sponsored the Senate resolution, S19-1R, last year to make Juneteenth a state holiday, commemorating June 19, 1865, when enslaved Black Americans in Galveston, Texas, learned that the Civil War was over and they were free – three years after President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation.
We also sponsored legislation, A-4737, calling for municipalities to give hiring preference to residents so police departments look more like the communities they serve and S-2590 to require civil service examination for police and correctional police officers to include questions to identify implicit racial bias. Our bill, A4907, appropriating $58 millon for a statewide body camera program has been signed into law.
Two of our bills that recently gained Senate approval would establish a task force to examine school discipline practices, including racial disparities and effectiveness, S-1018, and S-1020 to require the state issued School Report Cards include a demographic breakdown of students who are disciplined to be included in a statewide database.
We also sponsored legislation that has passed the Senate, S-2769, to appropriate $50 million from federal funds for the NJ Economic Development Authority to create grants by creating the “Minority Business Development Program.
We also introduced legislation, S-2552, to require implicit bias training for physicians.
The health emergency has demonstrated that Black Americans have far less trust in the healthcare system, a problem we have been discussing with community leaders. Last week we met with leaders in the Black community, to discuss apprehension in the Black community about getting the COVID-19 vaccine and ways that we can work to support them in accessing this much needed vaccine. We hope to continue these conversations and help to foster trust through relationships, legislation, and advocacy.
African Americans are twice as likely to be hospitalized with COVID-19 than white Americans, and three times more likely to die from the virus. The reasons are challenging and relate to opportunity and trust. Many people of color living in poor communities simply don’t have access to high-quality health care or health insurance.
The doctors pointed out that the distrust of the medical profession stems from the “Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male” in 1932. The Public Health Service, now the CDC, and the Tuskegee Institute, conducted the study involving 600 black men without obtaining prior consent and while misinforming them about the study. Nor did the men receive proper treatment to cure their illness, even after penicillin became widely used to treat it 1947. More than 70 years later, that distrust remains.
It is crucial that in the post-pandemic world that we ensure all people have access to quality health care, not just to combat infectious diseases but to improve their everyday lives.
Now more than ever, we must make sure state funding is reaching the people it is supposed to reach as we all must strive for equity to create a better, safer, and more prosperous environment for everyone.
As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “The time is always right, to do what is right.”