By Clyde Hughes | AC JosepH Media
ATLANTIC CITY – Alexander Bland said he wants someday to be elected as the first African-American freeholder in Cape May County but admitted he always had a problem with the name used to describe New Jersey’s elected county executives.
Current Atlantic County Freeholder Ashley Bennett said a current move to eliminate the use of the word “freeholder” is “long overdue.”
“I first found out about the issue last year when I had Atlantic County Freeholder Caren Fitzpatrick on my podcast and she spoke about it,” said Bland, current president of the Cape May County NAACP. “I have had private conversations about the issues with my Aunt Darlene Barber who was a freeholder in Cumberland County. New Jersey is the only state that still used the word, so what a great time to change it now in the midst of rallies and protesting against injustice.”
The New Jersey legislature this week will take up legislation to do just that in a bill that would require counties to dump the “freeholder” title for “county commissioner,” what they are called in most states.
The term freeholder dates back to English colonies when only white men who own land and property, such as slaves, could vote in elections. Gov. Phil Murphy last week said the term was “born from racism” in calling for it to be changed.
“I am thankful for the many allies across the state like that of my own colleague Freeholder Fitzpatrick in their advocacy,” Bennett said. “However, it is my desire is that this be a starting point from which more conversations and substantive plans are developed that are transforming for our communities and lead to a more equitable society across the New Jersey.”
The move seems to be part of a movement since the death of George Floyd in May that renewed calls for the removal of Confederate statues. The Washington D.C. NFL team has even decided to change its name.
But some, like Imani Oakley, Northern vice chair of the Progressive Democrats of New Jersey, said she does not want it to become a distraction to other needed changes. She said when she heard about the effort to remove the term “freeholder,” she saw it as “mostly symbolic.”
“Which for me is a bit troubling since Black people over the past several months have been calling for very specific things: defunding the police, abolishing the police, or calling on elected officials to stop taking money police entities for their campaigns,” Oakley told Front Runner New Jersey.
“My fear is that these symbolic gestures will distract people from focusing on the real issues of police brutality and state violence against Black and Brown bodies,” she added.
While Oakley saw it as symbolic, Ryan Haygood, president and chief executive officer of the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice saw the change “absolutely necessary” to end the glorification of such terms.
“At the same time, symbolism should never be a replacement for concrete policy change,” Haygood said. “In New Jersey, we have some of the worst racial disparities in the nation when it comes to wealth, criminal justice and even health outcomes.
“There are several pieces of legislation pending that New Jersey’s legislature should pass immediately: a bill to create a reparations task force (S322/A711), a bill mandating a total ban on chokeholds by law enforcement (S2617/A4284); a bill to close youth prisons and instead fund substantial community support programs to keep young people out of the system in the first place (S315/A710); and a bill providing for the expedited release of certain incarcerated people, including youth, during the pandemic (S2519/A4253),” he added.
Indeed, Crystal Charley-Sibley, second vice president of the New Jersey State Conference NAACP, called the removal of the “freeholder” term should only be used as a “first step” to address deep systemic problems that need examining.
“I view these efforts as an acknowledgement of deep rooted systemic racism, however, the next step must be to remove the racism itself from the entire system,” said Charley-Sibley, who is also president of the Southern Burlington County NAACP. “We need our legislators to replace laws and policies that will dismantle the systemic racism that results in the continued oppression of the Black community and other marginalized communities.”
Loretta Winters, president of the Gloucester County NAACP and vice chair of the South Jersey Federal Credit Union’s board of directors, said she applauds Sweeney’s effort to get something passed in the Senate, but history books would be one logical next step in correcting the past.
“There are so many next steps to take, but I would like to see our school’s history books updated to tell the real American history,” Winters said. “Not just the good, but the bad and the ugly of our founding government and how enslaving another human for their personal benefit caused systemic racism and economic imbalance that the black, red, and brown people are still experiencing today.”
Rev. Charles Boyer, founder of the influential faith organization Salvation and Social Justice, said he will be watching to see if Murphy, State Senate President Steve Sweeney and the rest of the New Jersey legislature will try to make more of the movement beyond removing the freeholder name. He said this period of time requires more.
“Symbols are important,” Boyer said. “But symbols are meaningless if they are not backed by real systemic change. My frustration with New Jersey, its politicians, and its protectors of the status quo, is their expedience to do symbols and ceremony but their resistance to do transformational justice. To be clear, we are in a moment that is far beyond reform. We are in a moment that demands reconstruction.”
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