As a New Jersey state judge is deliberating, supporters of a lawsuit accusing the state of perpetuating segregated schools held a lunchtime rally in Trenton on Thursday.
The dozens who attended represented a cross-section of youth, faith, social justice, and civil rights groups who want state leaders to demolish, what a University of California Los Angeles study determined to be, the home of some of the most segregated schools in the country.
Some speakers who were educated in the Garden State recalled the lengths their families took to send them to a better school district.
“I grew up surrounded by a sea of boarded-up houses,” said Christian Estevez, president of Latino Action Network, the lead plaintiff in the case. He recalled that his native Plainfield, Union County, was “left behind by white flight.”
“I grew up in schools where classrooms were full of students who were drowning,” Estevez said. When he was in middle school, his mom, with the help of his adult brothers and friends, rented an apartment so he would attend school nearby in more affluent Westfield.
He said the difference was night and day between the two towns.
“This was like something out of a TV show, like Happy Days or something with the white picket fences,” Estevez said. “My school wasn’t a war zone. The streets weren’t scary and I got all these services.”
The Rev. Charles Boyer, director of the group Salvation and Social Justice, also a Plainfield native, confessed that his parents sent him to Piscataway for high school illegally.
Advocates say that integrated schools offer more than equalized educational opportunities, but a chance for kids to interact with different cultures in hope of breaking down racial and ethnic biases. Kasai Sanchez, a junior at Teaneck High School in Bergen County, echoed those sentiments in remarks that included rhythms of spoken word and poetry.
“If we shut the door, we are only encouraging a non-inclusive society,” she said. “We have left students to create their own bias, and we have done them a disservice deliberately without true diversity, without true inclusion, racial and ethnic prejudices will only exist, grow and progress.”
Morgan Blair, who is Black, is a junior at Jonathan Dayton High School in Springfield, Union County. She said while the school was predominately white, she does not have all of the resources she needs.
“There are so many biases throughout all of our classrooms,” she said. “My teachers look down on me, [they] email my parents saying, ‘Oh, she needs to pay more attention to her homework,’ when all my homework is right there; you’re just not helping me.”
Morgan said she’s glad the lawsuit happened, because it raised issues that have been silenced for too long.
Her father, Anderson Blair, was born and raised in Newark. He said he didn’t have regular interaction with white people in the same classroom until he attended a predominantly white college.
“It was a little bit of a culture shock and took away a level of comfort,” he said. “It took a minute to get that comfort level when I got there.”
Blair adds that integration needs to begin now.
“When you talk about the integration of schools, you’re talking about opportunity, you’re talking about funding; you’re talking about the overall education of a people,” he said.
The rally was held in front of the Richard J. Hughes Justice Complex, where the state attorney general’s office is based. A fact that was not lost on Ryan Haygood, president of the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, who had a specific message for the Acting Attorney General.
“On the facts, Matt Platkin, you will lose,” he proclaimed. “The question is, can we get leadership from the acting attorney general Matt Platkin and the governor who … fancies himself the most progressive governor in the country?”
Oral arguments were heard earlier this month in the case officially titled Latino Action Network, et al. v. State of New Jersey, which was first filed in 2018. Lawyers for the plaintiffs argued that the state has not done enough to adequately integrate public schools.
They used available statewide data showing that between 2015 to 2016 and 2019 to 2020, 47% of Black and Latino students attended schools that were 90% non-white. And 64% of Black and Latino students attended schools that were 75% non-white.
Conversely, 30% of white students attended schools that were more than 80% white. And 40% of white students attended schools that were more than 75% white.
The state argued that it can’t be held liable for school segregation based on the raw data provided by plaintiffs, suggesting that there were external forces at play beyond the state’s control.
It also said that the plaintiffs failed to provide evidence that New Jersey students are unprepared to enter society upon graduation.
It’s likely that Judge Robert Lougy may provide a written opinion at a later date, given the magnitude of the case.
Elise Boddie, who was an advisor to the lawsuit, said it’s not about assigning blame.
“This is a longstanding problem,” she said. “Our segregated schools are the inherited legacy of redlining.”
Supporters also called for the passage of a bill to create a Division of School Desegregation. The division would identify instances in which students are functionally, though not legally, segregated along racial and socioeconomic lines, and “to ensure better integration and a more diverse enrollment in public schools,” according to bill sponsor Sen. Joe Cryan (D-Union). It was narrowly approved by the state Senate Education Committee in February.
Estevez said the bill is a step in the right direction.
“I think that we have some legislators who are being forward-thinking here and not waiting for the court to decide,” he said. “I think they should be commended for that.”
WHYY’s Tennyson Donyéa contributed to this report.
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