By Victor Miguel Rivera and Michael James
Most people think segregation ended with Brown v. Board of Education nearly 70 years ago. But in New Jersey, segregation not only continues, it has evolved.
As students who attended public schools in Mercer County, New Jersey, we know first hand that racial and economic segregation still exists because we experienced it almost every day of our lives.
New Jersey has some of the best schools in the nation, but its schools are also among the most segregated for hundreds of thousands of Black and Latino students currently enrolled and millions of others who have matriculated through the public school system over the decades. Many students of color express the impact that school segregation has on their lives — which is directly connected to state zip code laws that require students to attend schools in the geographic locations where they live — but most notably the lack of air conditioned classrooms, equal resources, readiness for post-graduate life and exposure to other cultures.
While Brown vs. Board of Education mandated desegregation, stating that the Constitution does not permit racial segregation in public schools, it was only a first step on the path to integration. Honoring this legacy by upholding true integration means not only removing barriers — like New Jersey’s flawed zip code law — that lead to school segregation, but also replacing them with institutional support that allows for diverse learning environments that young people need to thrive.
No one should have to endure what students in New Jersey have in school, a place where we hope to learn and grow with peers and be set up for our futures. Instead, in places like Hamilton, New Jersey, where we attended school, schools regularly receive notices that water is not safe to drink and most schools lack air conditioning.
Throughout the state, the quality of schools — both infrastructurally and educationally — noticeably decreases as you enter lower income zip codes, where residents are overwhelmingly Black and Latino. Some public schools are even dealing with an overflow of students, forcing administrators to build makeshift classrooms in gymnasiums and cafeterias.
In non-white schools, students are also learning with outdated textbooks, limited access to technology and minimal college preparedness programs. As a result, a student’s ability to be prepared for success in life largely depends on which neighborhood they are fortunate enough to live in.
In the state of New Jersey, roughly three million people live in poverty. That’s about one-third of its residents, 800,000 of which are students, according to a study conducted by the Legal Services of New Jersey’s Poverty Research Institute. As a younger student, it’s easy not to notice how much this lack of access can impact the trajectory of our lives but since graduating high school, this imbalance is felt firmly.
Segregated schooling denies more than one million New Jersey public school students the well-known benefits of a diverse education. Our school system is not set up to help Black and Latino students like us, many of whom are the first in their families to consider college. For some of us it means having to try to navigate the complexity of how to fill out college applications, how to apply for grants and student loans, how to sign up for dorm living and how to register for classes with no assistance from our schools.
That’s why we got involved with a coalition of students, families, faith groups, civil rights organizations, and youth activists supporting a lawsuit to demand a school integration plan for New Jersey students. Students in our coalition who’ve attended more culturally diverse schools say they have less conflict with teachers, feel more comfortable speaking their native languages and have more overall confidence. This representation matters — the overall environment is healthier, people are happier.
It’s clear Brown v. Board of Education was never applied with full force outside the South, and decision makers in New Jersey are fully aware of its segregation problem. Latino students will make up nearly 30% of all public school enrollment by 2030 and disparities between white and Black students across the nation have been widely researched and documented.
It’s time to replace the current system that has hurt and disadvantaged so many lives, with a system in which every student can succeed, regardless of their zip code. Change is necessary. New Jersey can be that pioneer for change.
Victor Miguel Rivera, a Mercer County Community College student, currently serves as Executive Director at Voters of Tomorrow New Jersey. Victor previously served as a Campus Corps Leader for Senator Bernie Sanders’s 2020 presidential campaign and a community organizer on various local races.
Michael James is an athlete at Kean University and an active member of Grant Chapel AME Church in Trenton, N.J. Michael’s vision for success is to be able to provide for those he cares about, while also serving as a positive influence on peers and colleagues.