Community members from across Long Island met at the Stony Brook Hilton Garden Inn to discuss structural racism and its impact on the region on Thursday, Nov. 29.
The event, organized by local racial advocacy group ERASE Racism, was the first in a series of public forums held across Long Island titled: “How Do We Build a Just Long Island?”
In spite of the name, most of the conversation dealt with the importance of acknowledging the systemic racism that exists on Long Island as opposed to brainstorming specific solutions.
“Many of the policies in our region that insulate and reproduce structural racism — now here I’m speaking particularly of our segregated schools, and towns, our lack of public transportation and other land use choices — are based on a false narrative of what Long Island was, of who it was for and a fear of where it is going,” Abena Ampofoa Asare, an assistant professor in the Africana studies department and panelist at the forum, said.
The panelists explained how they believe racism has shaped Long Island’s history. For instance, Chris Sellers, director of the Center for the Study of Inequality and Social Justice at SBU and professor in the department of history, pointed out that in the early 1900s, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory was headed by one of the pioneers of the American eugenics movement. Associate Professor in the department of sociology, Crystal Marie Fleming, pointed out that the hamlet of Yaphank was home to a Nazi colony in the 1930s.
“If we’re going to build the kind of anti-racist change we seek, we need to be brave and talk frankly about these matters,” Fleming said.
Another central theme was the persistence of segregation on Long Island in spite of its increasingly diverse population.
“Long Island is among the 10 most segregated metro regions in the country,” ERASE Racism president, V. Elaine Gross, said. She pointed to data compiled by her organization which shows the number of intensely segregated school districts (where the population is 90-100 percent non-white) more than doubled between 2004 and 2016, from five districts to 11.
“Folks become socially and culturally isolated from the realities of the society in which we live,” Fleming said. “Research has also shown that the vast majority of Americans have no meaningful relationships with people of color.”
Psychology graduate student and panelist Miriam Sarwana explained why this segregation exacerbates racist beliefs.
“A white adult, let’s say, has little to no interaction with African Americans,” Sarwana said. “Starting in childhood, this person may be bombarded with distorted negative images of African Americans on television and in the news and be exposed to negative comments about people of color… this input can lead to the development of unfounded negative attitudes about African Americans.”
The panel took several questions from the audience. One woman, who identified herself as a teacher, asked how she can help her young students to overcome their preconceived notions about race.
“You have to give them another perspective so that they can be whole, especially for those students of color,” Asare responded. “Give them the framework to question the world that they are living in. Give them the questions that they can ask. [With] any text, even for small kids, you can ask them ‘How would this look different?’ ‘Whose perspective is missing?’”
Roughly 250 showed up to the forum, well over the amount that had registered. Instead of closing the doors, the organizers decided to let everyone who showed up stay and listen. But as a result, the event got off to a late start leaving no time for the audience to break off into smaller group discussions as was scheduled.
Although the event didn’t turn out exactly as planned, Arti Logreira from Centereach said she was glad that she attended. “We are pretty new in the neighborhood and we heard a lot of stories about racism, discrimination and stuff so of course I wanted to learn and hear from the New Yorker’s mouth how they feel about it and what they really experience,” she said.
Thomas Muench from Lake Grove said he thinks it is important for white Long Islanders to educate themselves about race. “People have to start thinking about this,” he said. “They have to stop thinking that racism is just a few people being mean to a few other people. They think that segregation just happens, not that it’s them pushing their politicians to create laws that keep people segregated.”