'Where we live is segregated': A look inside one of America's most racially divided suburbs

·Reporter

In the series Our Nation, Yahoo Life’s Brittany Jones-Cooper visits cities around America to examine how their histories of racial segregation and discrimination are affecting those same communities today.

I can’t be the only one asking myself, “How did we get here?” 

Instead of domestic tranquility, our nation is so divided that issues like equality and wearing a mask during a pandemic are heated debates. We are in unprecedented times, no doubt about that, and in order to move forward together, I believe we must examine the past. 

At a time when many in the United States are recognizing its systemic racism, I wanted to unpack the complicated histories of cities just like yours. Cities with sometimes shameful pasts that must be confronted, if an honest path forward is ever to be made. The first place I decided to visit was Long Island, N.Y., a sprawling suburb located just outside of New York City. Home to beaches, shopping malls and vineyards, Long Island was built to represent the American dream for the middle class. Still, with a checkered past and consistent issues with fair housing, Long Island remains one of the 10 most segregated places in America.

I wanted to know why, so I met up with Elaine Gross. She’s the founder of Erase Racism, a civil rights organization based on Long Island that addresses the impact of historical and ongoing structural racism. Gross informed me that places like Levittown, N.Y., were known for being among the earliest mass-produced suburban communities with very affordable housing. At the time, however, the federal government was also continuing its policy of pushing for segregation. 

“They said that you have to have a racial covenant and deed, which meant that a white person bought the housing, but they couldn’t resell to anyone who wasn’t Caucasian,” Gross told Yahoo Life. “It wasn’t until 1968, with the Fair Housing Act, where housing discrimination was not supposed to be legal anymore.”

In addition to the federal policies encouraging segregation, some believe that Long Island was also segregated by design. Public official Robert Moses, known as the “master builder” of New York City, Long Island, Rockland County and Westchester, was respected by many, but a growing number are starting to question why he made certain decisions concerning Long Island’s layout. 

“The parkways and the bridges over the parkways were kept low so that buses could not fit, and that would mean that people of color, Black people certainly, wouldn’t be able to come out from the city and enjoy all of the amenities that were being built for Long Island,” explained Gross. 

Historians have different views on what Robert Moses’s true intentions were while developing Long Island, but he’s a controversial figure whose presence can be felt everywhere, including the village of Babylon, N.Y., where a young group of protesters has been advocating for the removal of a statue of his likeness. Anthony Torres, who grew up in Babylon, has been one of the many requesting that the statue be removed.

“What that statue today represents is how the powerful few have fueled these divisions in order to keep themselves in control of the wealth and power in our communities,” Torres told Yahoo Life. “And that’s a history we’ve never really come to terms with.”

In a separate effort, another woman in the community started an online petition that called for the removal of the Robert Moses statue. As of Friday afternoon, the petition had more than 15,000 signatures.

There are likely several factors that contributed to the racial segregation on Long Island, but over time it’s not getting better — it’s getting worse. 

Over a 12-year period, Erase Racism researched segregated school districts on Long Island. When the organization started the study, there were five intensely segregated school districts. By 2016, that number had jumped to 11.

“So at a time when Long Island is actually becoming more racially diverse, we’re not becoming more racially integrated,” said Gross. “What people will say is, ‘Well, we just go to school where we live,’ and of course, where we live is segregated.”

Not only are these towns still segregated, but a recent report discovered that some realtors are actually reinforcing the divide. In 2019, Long Island newspaper Newsday conducted an investigative report on fair housing titled, “Long Island Divided.” I was deeply affected by the documentary Newsday released, so I went to its headquarters to meet with journalist Keith Herbert, who, along with his team, recently won a Peabody Award for the investigation. 

There are 291 individual municipalities or census-designated places on [Long] Island. African-Americans live in 11 of those, so those numbers really tell about the concentration of Black folks on Long Island and where they live,” Herbert told Yahoo Life.

Newsday was curious to examine the role real estate agencies played in Long Island’s historical segregation. For more than 18 months, the Newsday team hired actors of different ethnicities to play potential home buyers. Each “home buyer” would have the same exact credentials and financial standings; the only difference would be the color of their skin. After they were outfitted with hidden cameras and microphones, each actor went to the same agency to see if there were any differences in the way they would be treated. 

The investigation found that 49 percent of Black applicants faced some form of discrimination.

Realtors using the illegal practice of steering, the tactic of directing buyers to neighborhoods based on the racial makeup of that neighborhood, is something Newsday was looking to uncover in its investigation. This can be done by using coded language about the quality of schools, safety or location. 

“The disparate treatment or unequal treatment was in many different forms ... a minority tester would go to an agent, and the white tester would go to the same agent, but the agent would tell the white tester something derogatory about the neighborhood dominated by minority residents, while the Black tester wouldn’t get any information like that,” Herbert said.

Watching the Newsday documentary opened my eyes to how insidious and subtle discrimination can be when it comes to fair housing. One of the nonwhite testers in the investigation said that she assumed having the same amount of money would guarantee her access to the same properties. This was not the case on Long Island. Is it the case in your city?

Before I left Long Island, I met with Ama Yawson, an educator and children’s book author. She and her husband are raising two little boys on the border of Baldwin, N.Y., and Freeport, N.Y., two predominately nonwhite neighborhoods. 

Long Island is their home, and they love going on nature walks and spending time at the local parks. Still, Ama can see and feel the differences between her community and neighboring towns. 

“I would say one challenge is that I feel as if the amenities, the stores that are located in our community, don’t reflect the economic diversity of the community,” said Yawson. “As a mother, I’m interested in very healthy foods for my family, and I’m unable to find them at an affordable price in my own community. I’m very often going to Merrick. I’m going to Garden City. I’m going to Westbury in order to shop and get the sort of vegan products, gluten-free products, healthier organic produce and organic products at an affordable price.”

She adds that Long Island is a microcosm of the United States, a place still reeling from its past.

“And so all of the history that we’ve seen in terms of redlining, where you have certain communities that are deemed as disadvantageous and you have less investment in those communities, you see that here,” she said. 

To ensure that her sons felt empowered in the Black Lives Matter movement, Ama took them to some local protests. While most of the protests on Long Island were nonviolent, they weren’t without tension. In Huntington, N.Y., peaceful protesters were called “animals” by a local businessman who threatened on his social media account to throw watermelons at them. Protesters responded by placing dozens of watermelons outside his business. In Merrick, N.Y., counterprotesters could be heard shouting “Go back West,” to demonstrators, “back West” implying predominately nonwhite towns. 

“I would like to feel as if the people that I’m around, of all races, understand the value of my life and the value of my children’s lives. And so instead of being enraged by protests, they would join with protests in saying this has got to stop,” said Yawson.

I walked away from Long Island with a mix of emotions. I was frustrated by the clear racial divide and inspired by the people committed to unifying the towns. My hope is that after my exploring Long Island, people will research the history of their cities.

Was your city redlined? Are your communities segregated? How did it get that way?

If you’re watching the news, reading social media or talking to friends, you may be feeling confusion and pain. Routines and traditions may look different, but one thing remains the same: This is our nation, and we can make it better ... together.

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