To say that this has been a bad month for New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie would be something of an understatement. On top of the ongoing “bridge-gate” scandal, he’s now fighting allegations that his administration used Superstorm Sandy recovery funds to both strong-arm Hoboken’s mayor on a development deal and promote himself in election-year advertisements.
But another scandal, one that’s still below the radar of most pundits, could be more outrageous and even more damaging to Christie’s political prospects. Fortunately for the governor, he still has a chance to make this one right.
Data obtained by the Fair Share Housing Center show that the Christie administration has rejected African Americans seeking major post-Sandy rebuilding support at more than twice the rate of white applicants, and Latinos at 50 percent higher rates than whites. Adding insult to injury, the administration reportedly posted inaccurate information on the Spanish-language version of the state’s Sandy website and has no public plan for making whole the people who were harmed by the misinformation.
Superstorm Sandy did not discriminate. But the Christie administration appears to be doing so, whether intentionally or through neglect, in the federally funded recovery effort.
For thousands of New Jersey residents of color, this unequal treatment is like a second devastating storm surge, sweeping them farther and farther from economic security, family stability and a return to normalcy more than a year after the storm. And it potentially violates federal laws requiring state and local governments using federal funds to protect civil rights and affirmatively further fair housing.
For Christie, this scandal is especially treacherous. He’s been talked about as a favorite for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016—in part because of his appeal across racial, ethnic and party lines in the generally blue state of New Jersey. He was re-elected last year with 51 percent of the Latino vote and 21 percent of the African-American vote. Compare that with Republican candidate Mitt Romney’s 27 percent of the Latino vote and just 6 percent of the black vote in the 2012 presidential election.
Voters of color will be watching closely how Christie responds to this latest crisis. Will he belittle the concerns and attack the messengers, as he initially did with the George Washington Bridge scandal? Or will he take in the evidence of unequal opportunity—derived from the state’s own data—and develop a plan to correct it?
The state will soon release, for public comment, amendments to its action plan for $1.4 billion in additional federal Sandy funds. The governor should follow the recommendations of the Fair Share Housing Center, the NAACP New Jersey State Conference and others by adopting new, clear rules for the fair distribution of funds to all communities affected by Sandy.
Our nation has made great progress toward equal opportunity since the Fair Housing Act and other civil rights laws were passed. But the pattern of racially unequal treatment in recovery efforts following Hurricane Katrina (pdf), Hurricane Ike and now Superstorm Sandy (pdf) speaks to the challenges that remain.
The question for Christie is whether he will rise to those challenges or shrink from them.
Alan Jenkins is executive director of the Opportunity Agenda, a nonpartisan public-interest organization with the mission of building the national will to expand opportunity in America. Follow the Opportunity Agenda on Twitter.
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