From the Legislature – June 17
By Vin Gopal, Eric Houghtaling and Joann Downey
This Friday we celebrate Juneteenth as a state holiday in New Jersey, marking the 19th of June in 1865 proclaiming freedom from slavery in Texas. Not only is this an important date in American history, but it’s also symbolic of how our nation, even our state, often are slow in bringing equity to people of color.
It took two-and-a-half years after the Emancipation Proclamation for news that the Civil War had ended to arrive in Galveston, Texas, and to inform enslaved African-Americans there of their freedom.
The inequities remain in different forms today, which is why we supported making Juneteenth an official state holiday in New Jersey on the third Friday of June. Even 50 years after monumental achievements of the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1968, Black Americans still face oppression in many forms and as we all know, people who forget history are likely to repeat it.
As legislators, we have worked with our nonprofit partners and clergy in the 11th Legislative District to generate conversation about making New Jersey a fairer place for people of color. Over the past year we held virtual forums on topics such as how police interact with Black women and the impact of policing on people with developmental disabilities and individuals with mental health challenges. We met virtually with Black and brown doctors in the Hackensack Meridian Health System and local community leaders to learn more about the distrust of the healthcare system and, by extension the COVID-19 vaccine, in communities of color. We have since sponsored legislation to establish a Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) Pandemic Task Force on Racial and Health Disparities.
We also sponsored numerous bills to address racial inequity through education, which we believe is one of the strongest paths to a fair and equal society for everyone.
Our bills would require school districts to issue a monthly report to the Commissioner of Education which includes a demographic breakdown of students who are being disciplined and create a statewide database of disciplinary actions in schools. This legislation dovetails into several of our other bills, which include establishing a task force to examine school discipline practices, including racial disparities and effectiveness, and requiring school districts and public institutions of higher education to provide anti-bias training for all employees who interact with students.
Other legislation we have sponsored would require school districts to provide anti-bias instruction as part of comprehensive health and physical education, to designate a chief equity officer, and have teachers biennially complete two hours of professional development related to cultural competence.
We also sponsored bills to create a three-year “Male Teachers of Color Mentorship Pilot Program” in school districts as well as colleges and universities, and for institutions of higher learning to improve campus diversity with the state Secretary of Higher Education providing guidance on ensuring diversity in the faculty search and selection process.
As we strive to identify and address racial inequity in the workplace, we have sponsored legislation to expand the powers and duties of the State Chief Diversity Officer to promote diversity in government and public contracting, and to require that civil service examinations for police and correctional officers include questions to identify implicit racial bias.
So, this Juneteenth is a day to celebrate inclusion and the contributions of persons of color to the rich cultural diversity of our state while recognizing that we all must play a part in making it an equitable and safer place for everyone who lives here.