Racism lives. And it lives right here and now in our town. If you don’t think so, or if you are ready to jump up and down and say it goes both ways, I bet your skin is white.

Racism lives. Its deep roots in America, a self-proclaimed egalitarian society, reach back to the African slave trade the founders of this nation so richly profited from. It is fundamental to our nation’s founding documents, charters and laws, which treated black human beings as property, to be dealt with and dispensed with as their white owners saw fit.

Racism lives. After slavery was abolished, legislatures and judges found other means to oppress the offspring and descendants of the men and women torn from their native lands and forced into slavery in the “new world.” Jim Crow. Separate but equal. Restrictive covenants. Anti-miscegenation laws.

Racism lives. Even after federal courts overturned the overtly racist laws that propped up white supremacy, racism’s ugly tentacles held a high grip beneath the surface — in hearts and minds, in attitudes, in social construct.

Racism lives. It’s just usually more subtle than it used to be. It’s the reason why blacks and whites, to this very day, are steered to different neighborhoods when looking to rent or buy a home. The “whites only” signs have been taken down, but other mechanisms are in place to achieve that goal.

Racism lives. It lives in an economic system that produces substantially higher poverty rates among blacks than whites. It lives in a health care system that delivers care based on ability to pay. It lives in a criminal justice system that incarcerates blacks at five times the rate of whites. These things are not the result of mere coincidence.

Racism lives. While blacks make up about 13% of the U.S. population, black Americans are two-and-a-half times as likely as white Americans to be killed by the police.

And so here we are. Again. Outrage over the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis on Memorial Day by a police officer kneeling on his neck for nearly nine minutes, while other officers helped hold Floyd down, has been expressed in many ways — from condemnation by many — though not all — public officials to demonstrations, protests and marches, to violent outbursts in the streets of multiple cities across the country.

Many local residents voiced outrage at a rally Sunday in Stotzky Park, calling for change to start right now and right here in our own community. A large crowd gathered and marched downtown, crying out for justice, kneeling in the street, shouting out the dozens of names of blacks killed by police in recent years.

Both the rally and the march were attended by people of all races and ethnicities — black, white, Latino, Native American, multiracial. Marchers, organized by two Riverhead high school students, walked from Peconic Avenue to Town Hall. They gathered on the lawn outside town hall, filling the air with the names of dead black victims of police violence, with chants and cries for justice.

Next door, Riverhead police officers wearing helmets and holding shields and batons, circled police headquarters like soldiers ready to defend their fort. Personally, I’m grateful the marchers settled in on the lawn at town hall and did not enter the parking lot outside the police station, where they would have come face to face with the police officers standing guard.

But even in that tense environment, when one of the marchers, a black man, brought his little girl to the police station in search of a bathroom, I watched as the police lieutenant on the scene took the little girl’s hand in his own and led her up the steps to the police station entrance, with her dad walking behind them.

Riverhead is a microcosm of America. In broad strokes, white people have held the economic clout and political power in this town. With few exceptions over its 228-year history, its government has been and remains white, its police department is white and its school system has been run by white people, despite a population that has been about 20% black for decades.

The growth of the Latino population in our community brings with it a whole new set of challenges to the principles of equality and opportunity we as Americans claim to hold dear.

I certainly don’t pretend to have the answers to these complicated problems. I don’t think any individual does. But I know it’s time we confront the beliefs we hold in our own hearts and start having some serious conversations, however uncomfortable they may be, about how to bring about the change that’s needed to solve the problems we face — together.

To that end, we’re going to be hosting a series of online conversations about race and diversity in Riverhead.

We’re going to kick things off with four live sessions with Tijuana Fulford, founder and executive director of The Butterfly Effect Project and BEP board member Ron Fisher. They’ll be sharing their experiences as a black woman and a white man who grew up in the Flanders area in the 1990s, graduated from Riverhead High School and became acquainted years later, when Fulford launched her groundbreaking youth group for kids from underserved communities.

In four 30-minute live sessions, Fulford and Fisher will be talking with each other about George Floyd’s death and our response to it, their experience of race and racism in Riverhead, “myth busters” about race and “where do we go from here?” Each session will be followed by a 15-minute Q&A session with the audience.

The sessions will take place on Friday June 5, Monday June 8, Thursday, June 11 and Friday, June 12, beginning at 7 p.m.

We hope to continue this series with other community members. If you’d like to participate, please send me an email. Our goal is to talk with “ordinary people” as well as “leaders” about the lives they lead and what their experience has been.

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