One Nation Ep1 Pt 1: A Look Inside One of America's Most Segregated Suburbs

Yahoo Life correspondent Brittany Jones-Cooper visits Long Island, NY to learn about its history of designed segregation. Brittany speaks with the President of Long Island's civil rights organization, ERASE Racism, and a young protestor from Babylon to discuss the area's historic racial issues, from problems with fair housing with fair housing to the checkered past of Robert Moses.

Video Transcript

[MUSIC PLAYING]

ELAINE GROSS: I was born on Long Island and raised here. When I went to junior high, a teacher called my mom in and said your daughter doesn't belong in my class. And so the teacher very quickly kind of moved me out. I knew that there was something a little odd, that all the people that looked like me seemed to live on two streets.

BRITTANY JONES-COOPER: Famous for its beaches, vineyards, and shopping malls, Long Island is the birthplace of the American suburb. Made up of Suffolk and Nassau counties, Long Island was built to represent the American dream for the middle class. But with a checkered past and continued issues with fair housing, it remains one of the 10 most segregated places in the nation.

So I came here to find out more from the people who live here. But you're saying Long Island is more diverse. But it's more segregated than ever. Why?

ELAINE GROSS: Of course, there's Long Island's history, which is important to understand. So Long Island is known for Levittown being one of the earliest mass-produced suburban communities, very affordable housing. But the federal government was also continuing its policy of pushing for segregated housing.

They said that you had to have a racial covenant in deed, which meant that a white person bought the housing, but they couldn't resell to anyone who wasn't Caucasian. And it wasn't until 1968, actually, with the Fair Housing Act, where housing discrimination was not supposed to be legal anymore.

Of course, we know that that act didn't make housing discrimination go away. Erase Racism did some research in a 12-year period. And at the beginning, there were five intensely segregated school districts. By 2016, 12 years later, there were 11 intensely segregated. So at a time when Long Island is actually becoming more racially diverse, we're not becoming more racially integrated.

BRITTANY JONES-COOPER: But can the case be made that these school districts exist to keep the kids segregated?

ELAINE GROSS: Oh, absolutely. But, you know, what people will say is, well, we just go to school where we live. And of course, the where we live is segregated. In some instances, people talk about Hempstead and Garden City, for example. You can walk down a street. And you could see the beautiful trees and large homes. And then take another step, and you're in Hempstead.

And so the communities are really very close, especially in Nassau County.

BRITTANY JONES-COOPER: Elaine talked to me about some of the issues surrounding Long Island architect Robert Moses, who many believed designed the island to be segregated.

ELAINE GROSS: Well, Robert Moses, you know the "master planner"-- people, again, have a lot of respect for him-- 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. so the wonderful beaches-- you know, it was really just to keep Black folks out.

BRITTANY JONES-COOPER: Historians have different views on what Robert Moses's true intentions were while developing Long Island. But he's a controversial figure whose presence is felt everywhere around here, including the quaint town of Babylon, where a young group of protesters have been protesting a statue of his likeness.

ANTHONY TORRES: My dad is an immigrant from Nicaragua. My mother is a white woman who grew up just a few towns away. And we are an anomaly in this community. And we may love to be a part of it. But it hasn't always been a place that has been truly welcoming to all. And so I gathered some of my family members and my high school friends. And we held a protest right in front of the Robert Moses statue and demanded that we remove and replace the statue as a first step towards making a more just and equal future together.

BRITTANY JONES-COOPER: An online petition to remove the Robert Moses statue received over 15,000 signatures in just a couple of weeks.

- [INAUDIBLE]

BRITTANY JONES-COOPER: The protests in Babylon were just one of many that erupted throughout Long Island in tandem with the rest of the country after the death of George Floyd.

ELAINE GROSS: The good thing is the protests here have been very multiracial. And the protests have been very peaceful. And there have been a couple of incidents where there were anti protesters that came out. Even where I live in Huntington, there was an incident where there was a peaceful protest. And someone came by-- he owns a restaurant in town-- and talking about throwing watermelons.

- They look like little animals, savages. We had a bunch of watermelons we were going to throw at them!

ELAINE GROSS: Later, they brought a lot of watermelons and put out front of their restaurant, which I thought was nice.

BRITTANY JONES-COOPER: You know, I love protesters. You know, they just really know how to--

ELAINE GROSS: You know, we have to be creative in thinking about how to address very concrete problems in concrete ways. The past is still with us. And people need to make sure they understand that history. And it's easy to go online now and to find out information. If they don't know what white privilege is, look it up. You know, before you get defensive, look it up.

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