Lifting New Jersey Together

When I founded the African American Chamber of Commerce of New Jersey, Inc, (AACCNJ) 16 years ago, it was to serve as a vehicle to foster relationships with those who possessed the requisite Resources, Opportunities and Information (ROI). It was a strategy to mitigate a host of systemic challenges that limit the equitable participation of Blacks in New Jersey’s economy.

Looking at the Numbers

Specifically, there are 1.2 million Black residents in the state of New Jersey and over 88,000 Black businesses. Ironically, this demographic has the highest poverty and unemployment rates, and the lowest median incomes: 35-37% own their homes versus Whites who are at 70%. 

Black net worth is $5,900 versus $315,000 for whites. If the saying is true that a rising tide lifts all boats, then the statistics that I just shared should prompt those with ROI to an intentional call to action.

The Tragedy of George Floyd 

The murder of George Floyd more than three years ago sparked a national outcry to address the inequities of Blacks versus mainstream Americans. There were pledges of grants, equity investments into Black businesses, career opportunities, board seats and corporate citizenship investments. Much was done. Those overtures, however, have not been strategically sustained in the marketplace. 

As we moved further away from this tragic event that occurred May 25, 2020, many have retreated to the status quo. There has been an ultimate reneging on their public declarations to Black businesses throughout the state.

Affirmative Action & Title VI

As a further consequence, now that the Supreme Court has ruled to strip away the benefits afforded through Affirmative Action in higher education and public contracting (Title VI), what is next? So much for the premise that “A Rising Tide Lifts All Boats.”

It is worth noting that New Jersey is one of the most diverse in the country and I see this as one of our greatest assets and strengths. However, if the perception is that the demographic data was provided to elicit an emotional or charitable exchange, about Black New Jerseyans and diversity, then you have clearly missed the point. 

Leveraging Diversity, Equity & Inclusion

The favorable impact of Diversity Equity and Inclusion (DE&I) when leveraged as a value proposition, or a strategic objective, is well documented. The data and research supports this.

Ironically, many of today’s leaders turn to these same sources for their counsel on strategies and trust their recommendations. However, they do not attribute the same weight when recruiting diverse talent for career or contract opportunities notwithstanding the favorable metrics.

Two examples of effectively implemented and executed DE&I strategies include:

  • Frederick Douglass and Robert Smalls negotiating with President Lincoln to incorporate 170,000 slaves as a part of his Army to win the Civil War.
  • Thomas Edison including the filament developed by Lewis Lattimore, the son of a slave, into his light bulb invention to keep it illuminated.

Part of the mission of the AACCNJ is to serve as an advocate, and a bridge, and to expose those who desire a more competitive New Jersey to best practices that have the potential to achieve these objectives. I see this as an opportunity to shatter the status quo and to foster transformational alliances for the betterment of all New Jerseyans.

The demographics of America and New Jersey are rapidly changing, and this is a positive development if we can only find the courage to embrace it. 

For those who struggle with this evolving situation, you can turn to your children whose collection of friends and colleagues look starkly different from ours. The scriptures say, and I paraphrase, “out of the mouth of babes reveals the blueprint for a better coexistence filled with exuberance and possibilities.”

Recently, CNBC reported that New Jersey moved to 19th place compared to others across the country on its handling of the economy. I can only imagine if New Jersey had completed its disparity study and implemented goals that would have incentivized public contracting with Minorities and Women owned businesses like those in New York.

New York spent over $3.2 billion with minority- and women-owned businesses in 2022. Would the findings have had an even greater positive impact on our state’s standing in the CNBC poll? We are hard-pressed to find comparable data in our state. However unofficially, I can state that public contracting with Blacks in New Jersey is less than 3%,and Blacks are at the bottom as suppliers of goods and services with most of New Jersey’s corporations when compared to their peer groups.

The lives of Blacks in New Jersey have had many ebbs and flows, based on those which possess the ROI, and the authority to exercise their discretion in its deployment. The coexistence of Blacks versus others in this country has had many moments of triumph despite the tumultuous history.

I challenge my business colleagues, political leaders, residents and friends who can properly discern factual data on strategies that can potentially realize better outcomes, to find a pathway to embrace these strategies.

We have come too far to allow the narratives, or unsubstantiated claims of a few, to overshadow factual empirical forward thinking. Our best days are only ahead when we pursue excellence through best practices and collaboration versus isolation and denial, this is the blueprint for our collective success!

John E. Harmon Sr., IOM is founder, president and chief executive officer of the African American Chamber of Commerce of New Jersey and the Chairman of the National Black Chamber of Commerce.