The Sunday after Election Day I was asked to address a Suffolk League of Women Voters post-election gathering. Obviously, the victory of Barack Obama would be the most important thing to comment on—his historical win nationally and his also carrying Suffolk County.
The LWV brunch at which I spoke was held at a country club in Bellport. I said it was remarkable that we would be considering Mr. Obama’s 52 to 47 percent plurality in Suffolk—with its long history of bigotry—in a hamlet where the housing patternÂ resembles a town in Alabama or Mississippi. In Bellport, black people live north and whites south of Montauk Highway. I also mentioned that as I entered the club.
I came upon LWV member Regina Seltzer of Bellport and asked her if the segregation continues—and she said it does, that “change comes slow.”
I talked about Suffolk as a whole: how it was a county where the Ku Klux Klan marched through the 1920s, where in Yaphank, several miles north, the Nazi Bund established a settlement in the 1930s with streets named for Hitler and Goebbels and where Nazis from throughout the New York area came to parade and spout hate. And I spoke of how through to the present day acts of racism have been numerous in Suffolk.
I spoke, too, about the place where I’ve taught for 30 years, SUNY College at Old Westbury, where since the 1960s a deliberate attempt has been made—as part of the educational experience—to mix white, African-Americans, Latinos, Asian-Americans and others on student, faculty and administrative levels. In this place of diversity, the young people get to know each other and mix beautifully. Thus despite what my old friend Reggie Seltzer mentioned, I said at Old Westbury I see change happening quickly.
What I didn’t know when I gave the presentation was that only a few hours before, several miles west in Patchogue, one of the most horrific hate crimes in Long Island history had happened. Marcelo Lucero, an immigrant from Ecuador, had been killed by a gang of high school students looking for “a Mexican” to attack. Thereafter came confessions that this was not an isolated incident: they regularly hunted Latinos.
Â “People in Suffolk County are hunting, attacking, killing Latinos for sport. What are we going to do about it?” testified Simeon Yanez of the The Workplace Project in Hempstead and Farmingville (a flash point for bigotry against Latinos a few years ago). “We’re all immigrants,” said Mr. Yanez. “We need to look at each other with love and understanding.”
He was among dozens who spoke. They told of widespread bias here, underreporting of hate crimes by Suffolk Police, East End town and village police not calling in the Suffolk Police Hate Crimes Unit to try to hide racism, and there were—notably from Legislators Ricardo Montano, a Latino, and DuWayne Gregory, an African American—calls for creating entities and initiatives to do something about hate in Suffolk.
“Let’s face it, racial tension seethes below the surface in Suffolk County,” said Cheryl Keshner relating the story of an Indian, “a local grocer who happened to be Hindu, being taunted with racial epithets” by two white men, one wielding a pipe, in her community of Lindenhurst.
“Let’s leave immigration reform to the federal government and use our legislature to work toward solutions which unite rather than divide our communities,” said Jane Lane of the Empire Justice Center at the Touro Law School in Central Islip. “Let’s use Marcelo’s death as an opportunity to increase dialogue, to decrease bigotry and to move forward.”
There was a fascinating report in The New York Times last month on “some new studies” in which “psychologists have been able to establish a close relationship between diverse pairs—black and white, Latino and Asian, black and Latino—in a matter of hours…This extended-contact effect, as it is called, travels like a benign virus through an entire peer group, counteracting subtle or not so subtle mistrust.” The headline: “Racial Tolerance Can Spread as Fast as Mistrust, Psychologists’ Studies Find.”
That’s what I’ve found at Old Westbury, an island of integration on a largely segregated island. People getting to know each as human beings is the key. This must spread.Â Â Â Â Â Â Â