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Suffolk Closeup: Confronting Suffolk racism


“How Do We Build A Just Long Island?”

That important question is being asked at a series of five public forums organized by the organization Erase Racism.

This is quite an undertaking, considering a history in which the KKK was a major force on Long Island in the 1920s; where Nazis from all over the New York Metro Area came and marched at their Camp Siegfried in Yaphank in the 1930s; where African-Americans have been consigned through real estate “steering” to communities aptly called “ghettoes;” and antagonism toward the latest immigrant group, Latinos, has been intense.

Moreover, the composition of students at schools is based on neighborhoods, and so most schools are nearly all-white and several nearly all African-American and Latino.

I went to the forum in Riverhead last week held by Erase Racism. Its executive director, Elaine Gross, opened it by noting that Long Island has been found to be “among the top 10 segregated metropolitan regions in the country.” The purpose of the forums, she said, is to “try to activate the public” and cause change.

First, there was a panel of three experts, then the 100 people in attendance formed into discussion groups, and then a representative of each came forward with proposals of his or her group.

“All humans alive today share a common ancestor in Africa 150,000 years ago,” said panelist David Micklos, executive director of the Dolan DNA Learning Center at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, a world leader in genetic research.

“All humans share 99.9 percent of their genetic material,” Mr. Micklos added. “Biologically there’s very little difference between any two human beings.”

He contrasted the slight genetic difference between people of only “one-tenth of one percent” to the genetic differences between types of corn in Mexico which ranges from 5 to 10 percent.

“Race doesn’t exist — it’s a social construct,” said panelist Anthony Zenkus, senior director of education and communications at the Victims Information Bureau of Suffolk and a professor at Columbia University. “White is a skin tone, not a racial identity.”

There was the “invention of whiteness,” and this “props up supremacy … Long Island is one of the most segregated regions because we have some of the richest, most elite communities in the country. Economic inequality and racial inequity, class and race are inextricably linked.”

Miriam Sarwana, a graduate student in psychology at Stony Brook University, spoke on the results of racism — how “nonwhites on Long Island are five times more likely to be arrested as a result of traffic stops,” and in Suffolk County, 53 percent of all arrests and 67 percent of felony arrests in the past decade were of people of color.

What’s involved, said Ms. Sarwana, is “structural racism.”

Ms. Gross, before the break-out session, said: “We are structured to be racially separated. We can’t let this stand.”

After a re-assembly of attendees, representatives reported their group’s recommendations.

“We need to look deeply inside ourselves and identify different biases that we have,” said Laura Goode, a retired nurse at Riverhead High School. If “we can acknowledge this we should be able to overcome it.”

We need to “break our generational curses,” said Lawrence Street, a leader of the Eastern Long Island chapter of the NAACP. “If we don’t do that … things will remain the same. We must begin that dialogue and talk about it.”

“Schools are silos, breeding grounds, of segregation,” said long-time teacher and former Suffolk County Legislator Vivian Viloria-Fisher. The pattern of schools lacking diversity needs to be changed, she said. Needed, too, she said, is affordable housing which has routinely been stopped by a “few loud voices … and politicians got nervous.”

The need for diversity in schools so young people can get to know young people of other backgrounds is critical, I’d say, based on my 40 years of teaching at SUNY/College at Old Westbury. The college for a half-century has had a goal of having diversity be a key part of the educational experience. It’s among the most diverse colleges in the U.S.

There are equal amounts of white, African-American and Latino students as well as Asian-American, Native American and foreign students. The faculty and administration is comparably diverse.

No group is in a majority. It’s wonderful to see the students get to know each other and get along beautifully.