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The Legacy of Racism on Long Island

BY: Nicole Donelan

The small town of Merrick, NY made news not once, but twice this month -- once when the passionate chants of a young Black girl went viral on Twitter, and twice when her fellow protestors were met with profanities and vitriolic commands from local residents to “go west.” The resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement has undoubtedly divided Long Island; even with the Merrick counter-protestors notwithstanding, any resident can attest to the fact that community posts and News 12 articles regarding the topic routinely devolve into arguments and name-calling. However, these interpersonal examples of racism on Long Island did not develop in a vacuum. They did not stem solely from the influx of protests nor the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Tyler, Ahmaud Arbury, and countless others. Long Island’s racism has trickled down through hundreds of years of history and continues to permeate each of our institutions: housing, education, and criminal justice. In order to address the racist actions of residents today, it is imperative to examine the legacy of racism on Long Island.

Like the rest of the United States, all of Long Island is settled upon land formerly belonging to a variety of indigenous tribes. Merrick specifically derives its name from the Meroke tribe, a branch of the larger Algonquin tribe. Many other Long Island towns derive their names from indigenous tribes or people, such as but not limited to Montauk (from the Montaukett, or Montauk people), Wyandanch (from a notable sachem, or chief, of the Montaukett), and all of the Rockaways (from the Rockaway people). Between 1609 and 1664 Long Island was settled dually by English and Dutch colonizers, and indigenous tribes were ravaged by infectious diseases like smallpox as well as violent clashes with colonizers. 

The colonization of Long Island by the Dutch West India Company and British settlers directly resulted in the perpetuation of the trans-Atlantic slave trade and the forced migration of enslaved African people to Long Island. In fact, between the 17th and late-18th century, Long Island (then comprising Suffolk and Queens counties) had the largest population of slaves anywhere in the North. As opposed to their Southern counterparts, enslaved people living on Long Island were expected to perform other types of labor in addition to agricultural labor, such as tailoring, whaling, and other domestic tasks like child-rearing. Long Island had a robust internal slave trade by the mid-1700s, and Long Island slave owners participated in the systematic rape of enslaved women, only to later separate their children from their families. Enslaved people were also bound by Black Codes, under which they could not congregate in groups larger than 3, own property, travel more than a mile from their home without permission, testify against white people, and their children would be born into slavery. By around the early 1800s, laws were gradually passed to emancipate enslaved people, such as a 1799 law granting freedom to enslaved women by age 25 and men by age 28. Although slavery was officially abolished in New York in 1817, the illegal slave trade still persisted, and decades later, the KKK would go on to maintain a strong presence on the island. By the 1920s, 1 out of every 7 Long Islanders was a member of the KKK, and many candidates for public office openly and proudly admitted to being members of the organization. Evidenced by the brazen attitude of these candidates was the fact that local law enforcement essentially turned a blind eye to the KKK’s activities on Long Island. A New York Times article from 1923 writes that “the authorities gave no heed to the meeting [of 25,000] and made neither attempts to stop it or nor efforts to learn the identity of those participating.” 

Following World War II, Long Island began to rapidly suburbanize, beginning with the construction of Levittown by the Levitt and Sons building firm. Communities like Levittown barred Black people and other minorities from owning homes there and intentionally created all-white communities. This was abetted by the Federal Housing Administration, which permitted racial discrimination within public housing and only afforded mortgages to housing developments that were not racially mixed. Furthermore, communities across Long Island were subject to redlining -- the practice of using color-coded maps and literally creating red lines to designate “undesirable” lending conditions, which were predominantly Black and Brown communities. Housing developments were not the only areas in which Black and Brown residents were discriminated against; in his award-winning 1974 biography of Robert Moses called The Power Broker, Robert Caro alleges that Moses intentionally sought to “restrict the use of state parks by poor and lower-middle-class families” by building bridges too low for buses containing low-income POC to pass through. 

The impact of these segregationist policies can still be seen and felt by Long Island residents today. Nassau County has ranked as the most segregated county among counties of its size and the fourth most segregated in New York. The examples of this fact are evident: the aforementioned Merrick is 88% white, yet neighboring Freeport is just 24% white. Merrick has a poverty rate of 3.24%, while Freeport’s is 12.6%. Similar divides can be found along the borders of Roosevelt/North Merrick, Uniondale/East Meadow, and Garden City/Hempstead. These differences in racial makeup are not just results of outdated segregationist laws; they are still held together by racial steering in real estate. Steering refers to the effect of real estate agents “steering” Black and Brown homebuyers away from predominantly white neighborhoods and into predominantly minority communities, regardless of income. A groundbreaking investigative series published by local publication Newsday in 2019 exposed this practice occurring across Long Island. De-facto segregation on Long Island does not end with housing discrimination; it is intertwined with educational inequality that is also abundant on the island. In 1974, the Supreme Court ruled that school districts were not responsible for racially desegregating along district lines, and this decision has deeply impacted Long Island. In 2019, NPR reported about the impact of this case specifically on Garden City and Hempstead. The graphic below shows the disparities between race, income, and educational resources (indicated by revenue per pupil

In addition to segregated communities and school districts, Black and Brown Long Islanders face racial bias within the criminal justice system. A 2017 Newsday report found that "nonwhites on Long Island were arrested at nearly five times the rate for whites, according to an analysis of police and court records from the years 2005-2016.” The article purports that a majority of these charges were for “a group of crimes that experts say are the ‘suburban equivalent of stop-and-frisk charges’… such as resisting arrest, obstruction of governmental administration, criminal trespass and a host of drug-related offenses.” 

To some Long Islanders, the recollection of these events and their connections to the present may seem disjointed. But each step in Long Island’s history gives contexts for the racism that continues to abound among its residents. The literal foundations of this island are on stolen indigenous land for which our communities are named. Slavery continued to increase anti-Black sentiment, as the island was a hotbed for slave ownership and Black people were continuously considered unequal and inferior under state laws. Long Island’s status as a KKK stronghold in the 1920s surely has relevance today; those same members passed down their racist beliefs only a few generations ago, and have living descendants on the island. And a quick drive between Hempstead and Garden City will elucidate the tangible impact that housing discrimination and de-facto segregation still has. This is why the calls of counter-protestors to “go west” reverberate so deeply. They beckon to the racist history surrounding why “going west” -- back to neighboring Freeport -- is so vastly different than Merrick. It is a segregationist dog-whistle encouraging an “us and them” mentality, and the counter-protestors know it. The fight for justice and racial equity on Long Island is far from over, and in order to achieve these goals, it is imperative for Long Islanders to confront the history of the land they live on and use the lessons learned from it to do better.

*All arguments made and viewpoints expressed within Youth In Politics and its nominal entities do not necessarily reflect the views of the writers or the organization as a whole.


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