Harmon: Why Black community will push for more from elected officials, business leaders in 2023

Head of African American Chamber says state needs to better align policies and regulations with rhetoric on serving underserved

About those tough conversations — the ones everyone pledged to have following the murder of George Floyd: John Harmon, the head of the African American Chamber of Commerce of New Jersey, still is eager to have them.

Don’t be confused: Harmon has been happy about the outreach by the business community to the chamber, which is bigger and stronger than ever. He’s talked about it with ROI-NJ many times (including here, here and here). And he’s thrilled by the diversity, equity & inclusion initiatives the African American Chamber is taking on with the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce.

But, he’s looking for more. And he’s looking for more from the Legislature and the Governor’s Office.

Harmon wants to see more legislation that will help Black business leaders and the Black community. He said those conversations — which already have been taking place — will happen more regularly and with more urgency in 2023.

Political activism is on the table, he said. It’s time, Harmon said, for the Black community to get a better return on its vote, which almost unanimously goes for the Democratic Party.

“We’re going to be engaging the legislators, have them understand that you can’t just talk it, you got to deliver for the people,” he said. “We vote, but it appears that our vote does not carry the same weight as a campaign contribution.

“We need to have a better understanding of this, because that speaks to the issue of power. Voting is powerful, but it’s helping people that don’t give us a return on investment. So, we’re going to have more conversations around that.”

Harmon faces issues head on. And he’ll be doing it with business leaders, too, he said.

“You’re going to see a deeper engagement with corporations around not just saying, but doing,” he said. “If you make decisions based on data points all the time, why isn’t data related to diversity, equity & inclusion given that same weight — when that data confirms over and over what diversity brings.”

This rhetoric may surprise some, considering that the state, especially under Gov. Phil Murphy’s administration, has long championed its efforts to help underserved communities. To be fair, seemingly every economic assistance, grant or training program comes with not only an emphasis on serving underserved communities, but incentives to do so.

Harmon acknowledges that — but he said there’s more that can be done. He has long pushed for raising the cap on contracts that go to nonunion groups (it’s 5% in-state, 35% at the federal level, he said). He continues to push for more equitable auto insurance rates (rates based on your driving ability, not your income or education level). He’s not happy how people of color have not had equal access to cannabis licenses.

Harmon said a lot of this goes back to the disparity study on contracts that the administration long promised but didn’t commission until December 2020.

“Had that been done five years ago, they could have made programming around cannabis, around contracting, that could have been more equitable,” he said. “Now, you say you’re for social equity, you say you’re for the marginalized population, but, because your policies are not aligned, you can’t incentivize that. The state is speaking out of both sides of its mouth.”

“What we’re saying is, ‘If you would have done this — and treated Black and brown and gay people as priorities with your policies, versus getting them to vote — we wouldn’t be in this situation.’”

It’s time to really talk, Harmon said. And it’s time to talk as partners — and from a point of mutual respect.

“We have to leverage whatever we have to be respected,” he said. “It’s all about relevance. We’re tired of being placated. It’s time for those in leadership to speak to Black and brown people like we are intelligent and that we know we’re talking about.

“We’re not looking for handouts. We’re willing to work with them to make the state better. Let’s start doing it.”