Star-Ledger Guest Columnist - Willie Dwayne Francois III

No time for handwashing, absolving ourselves of segregating schools | Opinion

Updated Apr 01, 2021; Posted Apr 01, 2021

Willie Dwayne Francois III, senior pastor at Mount Zion Baptist Church in Pleasantville, says we need courageous and imaginative state leaders who won't wash their hands of the responsibility to cure the shameful inequality permeating our deeply segregated public schools.

Star-Ledger Guest Columnist 

By Willie Dwayne Francois III

Holy Week occasions some concentrated time of reflection and action as large segments of the Christian world prepare to celebrate the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth — a poor Palestinian carpenter victimized by political malfeasance and a politics of self-preservation of the state and its power.

This year, April 4th is not only Easter Sunday and the last day of the Jewish Passover. It also marks the 54th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who never wavered in his intense opposition to segregation as a vile systemic sin and an assault on humanity. This Holy Week, almost 66 years after Brown v. Board of Education, New Jersey carries the distinction as the sixth most racially segregated school system in the United States in terms of the highest segregation of Black students and seventh in segregation of Latinos.

Today, in New Jersey, we need courageous and imaginative leadership at the state level, who will not wash their hands of the responsibility to cure the shameful inequality permeating our deeply segregated public schools.

Holy Week’s storied traditions and narratives include one of the most infamous acts of moral betrayal and political cowardice — one of the world’s most notorious acts of handwashing. Pontius Pilate, who was presiding over the kangaroo trial and state-sponsored death of Jesus, served at the pleasure of Emperor Tiberius as the governor of colonized Judaea. Matthew’s account of the episodic execution of Jesus depicts Governor Pilate, in a cowardly gesture to the crowd, washing his hands with water, absolving himself, and sentencing Jesus to capital punishment.

This is no time for Governor Murphy to wash his hands of the responsibility to end school segregation— a priority thrust upon him when more than 90% of the Black vote delivered him a win in 2017. Each time New Jersey students enter segregated classrooms or log into segregated Zoom sessions, it eviscerates public trust in the Murphy administration’s commitment to racial equity and economic justice.

School segregation inscribes the stigma of shame and inferiority on the psyche of the children forced to live under marked powerlessness and disinvestment. There is a clear consensus among social scientists, educational experts and civil rights scholars of the high correlation between racial education segregation, concentrated poverty, poor educational outcomes and many other debilitating social and economic problems.

For years, a group of majority white school districts across New Jersey has waged efforts to terminate their send-receive relationships with majority Black and brown districts. In the past, New Jersey courts have consistently and correctly struck down these secession attempts because they would exacerbate racial segregation and, therefore, violate New Jersey’s constitution. This was the case with Englewood Cliff’s efforts to separate from Englewood and North Haledon’s attempt to secede from Manchester Regional High School.

Recently, however, a group of lawyers and consultants led by attorney Vito Gagliardi of the firm Porzio, Bromberg, and Newman has delivered a string of secessionist victories to their clients (majority white school districts), relying on a handwashing Education Commissioner and Governor. Last year, Governor Murphy’s previous Education Commissioner allowed Maywood to separate from Hackensack, a decision that contradicts the Supreme Court’s decision in Englewood Cliffs. There was neither a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge nor anyone to challenge the fallacious claims that the separation would have no racial impact.

The most egregious decision occurred in 2015 when the state-sanctioned the will of Merchantville to sever its relationship with Pennsauken and join majority White Haddon Heights High School. For Merchantville, the Porzio firm embarked on an aggressive and expensive multiyear campaign to strand Pennsauken on the isles of segregation and isolation despite Merchantville’s best efforts in state courts.

Gagliardi promised that the separation would have no racial impact. Today we see his promises proved false. The year Pennsauken was cut loose, the 9th-grade class at Pennsauken’s high school declined from 328-272 students, and the number of White ninth graders fell from 40-24. Merchantville’s new destination, Haddon Heights, increased from 104 white students in 2015 to 149 in 2018.

Soon to be on the commissioner’s desk is Absecon’s latest petition to withdraw from Pleasantville High School. Like the other secessionist efforts, Absecon possesses a history of lobbying to end this agreement, including a rejection from the state in 1988 because withdrawing the 20 to 30 students they send to Pleasantville would result in more, not less, segregation. They are making the same argument today.

The majority white school district hopes no one cares about Pleasantville’s children, just like the Porzio team believes no one cares about Pennsauken or Hackensack’s students. They are counting on the new Acting Education Commissioner to roll over like the last one. They are banking on Gov. Murphy to pull a Pontius Pilate and wash his hands of it all.

If the state affirms Absecon’s resolve to secede, this administration only reinforces and validates school segregation. What message does it communicate to Pleasantville students I know, like Tanitra and Saul? Or students like Jose and Erin — young people matriculating into adulthood and civic life — will be forgotten by the state. There is no question that students in Absecon deserve a high-quality education. The students in Pleasantville deserve the same.

Absecon’s petition, if approved, would leave Pleasantville 100% nonwhite and completely isolated. That is not only illegal under our constitution; it is immoral and deeply corrosive to us all. Therefore, this moment requires action from state policymakers like Gov. Murphy, Senator President Stephen Sweeney, and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin. This is no time for handwashing when the future of children’s lives and democracy are in question.

This Holy Week, the courageous, self-sacrificing examples of the revolutionary Jesus summons us to get our collective hands dirty to end social arrangements of powerlessness and to end school segregation and secessions. We start by demanding the rejection of Absecon’s petition and the many nearly identical proposals all across the state.

Willie Dwayne Francois III is the senior pastor of Mount Zion Baptist Church in Pleasantville. He is also an author, an adjunct instructor in African American Studies at the University of Houston and president of the Theological Working Group of the Black Church Center for Justice and Equality.

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