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Can L.I., the 10th most-segregated region of the U.S., overcome its own past?

ERASE Racism founder and president Elaine Gross told the audience of over 100 people that Long Island's segregated housing patterns today are the legacy of post WWII structural racism, when the federal government encouraged restrictive land covenants that barred sales to nonwhites. Photo: Denise Civiletti

How do we build a just Long Island?

That question filled the house last night at a forum presented in Riverhead by ERASE Racism, a nonprofit education and advocacy group dedicated to promoting racial equality.

Long Island is the 10th most racially segregated metropolitan area in the United States, ERASE Racism founder and president Elaine Gross told the audience in opening remarks. Longstanding racial segregation has its roots in racially restrictive covenants aimed at keeping the suburbs white — banned by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1948 — and is perpetuated by exclusionary zoning and other local ordinances. 

A panel of three experts discussed racism in its various forms — structural and institutional racism and implicit biases — and what needs to be done to help people understand the many expressions of racism and their impacts on all people and our society.

David Micklos, executive director of the Dolan DNA Learning Center at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, spoke about how the concept of race evolved out of the early 20th century eugenics movement advanced by Cold Spring Harbor Lab’s Eugenics Records Office.

Eugenics is the idea that the human population can and should be improved by controlled breeding for desirable characteristics.

It was no coincidence that the rise of eugenics coincided with the period of the largest influx of immigrants in U.S. history — 1900 to 1924 — Micklos noted. There were almost no restrictions on immigration.

U.S. immigration law prior to 1924 banned Chinese immigrants, convicts, indigent people who could not provide for their own care, prostitutes, “lunatics or idiots,” epileptics, anarchists and political radicals, people with infectious diseases, alcoholics and polygamists.

Otherwise, Micklos said, “you had to have a little money, someone to claim you and no serious communicable diseases,” Micklos said.

Cold Spring Harbor’s Eugenics Records Office cofounder Harry Laughlin and others “didn’t like the complexion of some of the people coming in,” Micklos noted. They were mostly southern European and displaced eastern European Jews — different in appearance and culture from the northern and western European immigrants that settled in North America before that time.

Laughlin testified three times before Congress on how the immigrants coming in had high rates of crime, disease and dependency.

The Immigration Act of 1924 (the Johnson-Reed Act) established the national origins formula, which established national immigration quotas based on the number of foreign-born residents of each nationality who were living in the United States as of the 1890 census. The 1890 reference date greatly reduced the number of southern and eastern European immigrants. It set an annual ceiling of 154,227 for the eastern hemisphere and each country had a quota proportional to its population in the U.S. as of the 1890 census.

“Every person on the planet has a common ancestor in Africa 150,000 years ago,” Micklos said. “The ancestors of Europeans, Asians and Native Americans left Africa about 50,000 years ago and migrated around the globe,” he said.

The physical differences in people that most would say are attributable to “race” are actually the result of “a tiny amount of the genetic material we have,” he said. They exist because of adaptations humans made to their environment as they populated different regions of the world, he said.

“Any two people in this room share about 99.9 percent of their DNA. Biologically, there’s very little difference between any two human beings.”

But the identity of “who gets to write history” is central to how the story is told and how we as a society view race, said Anthony Zenkus, senior director of education and communications at Victims Information Bureau of Suffolk.

“The problem a lot of white people have is we look at things from our perspective and think that’s the way the world is,” Zenkus said.

White is “a skin tone, not a racial identity,” he said. “Whiteness became a racial identity as a means of social control to preserve the political and economic power of elite landowners…to preserve and extend slavery throughout the New World,” Zenkus said. It was a “divide and conquer” tactic, he said, and it worked.

“Racism is what props up supremacy,” he said. “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 inequality, class and race are inextricably linked,” Zenkus said.

Miriam Sarwana, a graduate student in psychology at Stony Brook University spoke on the subject of implicit bias, which follows from structural and institution racism.

Bias is when, rather than feeling neutral, there is a preference for or negative thoughts or associations about a group of people, Sarwana said.

Implicit bias has consequences — and they can be seen in the criminal justice system, she said.

“Nonwhite people are nearly five times more likely to be arrested
as a result of traffic stops,” Sarwana said.

In Suffolk, nonwhites made up 53 percent of all arrests in the past decade, far out of proportion with their representation in the general population, she said.

Judges dispense longer sentences to people with Afro-American facial features. People fear or see weapons where there are none among nonwhites.

The more than 100 people in attendance at the forum met in 10 break-out groups after the presentation to discuss ways to “build a more just Long Island,” as the name of the forum indicates.

After the break-out sessions, which were held in the dining hall, the audience came back together in the auditorium to share their take-aways, which were reported by volunteer small-group facilitators. The volunteers were members of the Riverhead Anti-Bias Task Force, which hosted the forum.

“We have to look inside of ourselves honestly and identify the implicit biases we have,” Laura Goode of Baiting Hollow said.

“Our group felt very strongly that if we consolidated communities into more diverse school districts we would have more integration,” Marjorie Acevedo of Wading River said.

“There’s still institutional racism,” said Lawrence Street. “Bottom line: We need to start with ourselves, to break our generational curses. As long as those things still exist, things will remain the same. If we don’t acknowledge it — ‘yeah I came from a racist family’ — it will never change,” Street said.

Angela DeVito said her group focused on the need for education — self-education, community education, education for our children.

A member of her group, Riverhead Councilwoman Catherine Kent, a retired elementary school teacher, said education helped her understand the fact of her own privilege as a white woman. “I didn’t realize I had privilege until the last few years when people started talking about it,” she said.

After the forum, Kent said the evening was “enlightening.”

It “prompted me to look at things with a different perspective,” she said.

“Riverhead is diverse and yet we’re still very segregated. As members of the town board, it’s our job to bring the community together and make sure that everyone’s voice is heard. We’re stronger together,” Kent said.

“I would like to see more diversity at town hall with our committees, employees and on the board,” she said.

Councilwoman Jodi Giglio also attended the forum.

“There was a lot of information and I look forward to discussing it as a board,” Giglio said. “I think the panel was very informative. I’d like to take a closer look at the statistics given by the young lady [Sarwana] and work from there. Learning about the implicit bias was very interesting.”

Last night’s event in Riverhead was one of five forums on the topic of building a just Long Island that ERASE Racism is holding over the course of a couple weeks across the region. There is still space available at the upcoming forum in Hauppauge on Dec. 10, Gross said.

“I’m very happy with the community response to this event,” Riverhead Anti-Bias Task Force co-chairperson Connie Lassandro said. “This is a very good start.” She said she expects the ABTF will host similar events in the near future. “This kind of dialogue is so very important,” Lassandro said. “It goes a long way.”

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Denise Civiletti
Denise is a veteran local reporter and editor, an attorney and former Riverhead Town councilwoman. Her work has been recognized with numerous awards, including a “writer of the year” award from the N.Y. Press Association in 2015. She is a founder, owner and co-publisher of this website. Email Denise.