The protests that have swept the nation in the wake of the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis—one of so many killings of black people by police through the years—included demonstrations in many communities in Suffolk County, among them Huntington, Huntington Station, Commack, Brentwood, Port Jefferson Station, Central Islip, Bay Shore, Sag Harbor, Shirley, Mastic, West Babylon, Huntington, Eat Hampton, Bridgehampton, Lake Grove, Greenport, Peconic, Brentwood, West Islip, Lindenhurst and the county seat of Riverhead.
The protests here have been peaceful, heartfelt and intense.
Racism remains deep-set on Long Island and nation. Newsday last year published a series of articles entitled “Long Island Divided,” the result of a three-year investigation. The newspaper sent out testers carrying hidden cameras and microphones to meet with real estate agents. The findings, as Newsday stated, provided “evidence” that “potential homebuyers were steered to neighborhoods based on race.”
Because of the series, New York State has instituted changes to try to combat the institutional racism which, in fact, has long shaped residential patterns on Long Island. It’s why there are “ghettoes”—Wyandanch, North Amityville, among others, a result of “racial steering,” still happening, although illegal. Long Island has been rated among the “most segregated” areas in the U.S.
For 42 years I’ve taught Investigative Reporting at SUNY/College at Old Westbury, a remarkably diverse institution. Experiencing diversity is a major element of the college’s educational program. Part of the course involves students doing investigations. Every semester, some of them investigate prejudice with white and black students teaming up and looking for jobs, apartments and used cars at dealerships—and being treated differently. Last year, one pair added to their investigation by the white student repeatedly screwing up in a job test involving folding and hanging garments, the black student doing excellent work. The white student was offered a job, the black student rejected.
Suffolk County Community College-based Center for Social Justice and Human Understanding featuring the Holocaust Collection issued a call last week that “we must take action to stop the intentional or unintentional killing of unarmed black Americans.”
“All Americans must take ownership of the pervasive racial discrimination that exists in our nation and move forward collectively to ensure that justice prevails,” said a statement signed by the center’s chairperson, Rabbi Steven Moss, and Jill Santiago, executive director. “No one can be silent. Rather, every one of us needs to be courageous, confront bigotry where it exists, and work to build a world where healing can begin.”
Other entities on Long Island committed to challenging the racism here include the aptly named Syosset-based organization Erase Racism. And there have been and are un-biased government leaders such as State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele, Jr. of Sag Harbor.
Mr. Thiele said last week: “In the wake of the murder of George Floyd and the unrest that has erupted across the nation, no one can afford to be silent if you care about our country. Justice for all is the foundation of our democracy. The words of Martin Luther King, Jr. can help illuminate the path forward for our nation as we seek to get closer to that ideal of justice. King stated, ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it.’ In the spirit of those words, I condemn the murder of George Floyd as an egregious criminal act. All of those who participated in that act must be brought to justice.”
“I also support the constitutional right of American citizens to protest,” said Mr. Thiele. “To protest against injustice is the foundation of our American democracy. Change never comes easy. Protest has been at the core of needed change throughout our history. It is clear that this is not an isolated incident. It has been repeated too many times across our land. Yet, nothing has changed. I support those who petition their government to change the circumstances that continue to lead to these injustices.”
SUNY/Old Westbury has for 50 years purposely mixed groups of people—white, African-American, Latino, Asian-American, Native-American and foreign. I marvel watching the students coming together, communicating, developing understandings and friendships.
The college’s president, Dr. Calvin O. Butts, III, says “Old Westbury is rightfully celebrated as a college community that brings people of all races, creeds, and socio-economic backgrounds together. Being designated among the top diverse campuses in the country…reinforces that Old Westbury is at the forefront of cultivating intercultural understanding and global citizenship in its students.”
Teaching at SUNY/Old Westbury has shown me that, yes, integration can work well.