Since the actual words that stirred a torrent of controversy around Nassau Legis. Ellen Birnbaum were revealed Monday, it has become clear that she needs to resign.
But it's also clear that while her callous trumpeting of racial stereotypes is troubling, there are many on Long Island who unfortunately would agree with her. That she felt so comfortable saying what she did is another problem altogether.
Birnbaum (D-Great Neck) was in a conversation with two county attorneys about the Yes We Can Community Center in New Cassel, a $27 million facility that opened in 2012. The center was built with local, state and federal funds as well as $10 million from the company building an underwater power supply cable for LIPA that needed to find a community willing to accept an unsightly terminus. The center is a pricey project that we all paid for, and there's plenty to question about how it was planned and executed. The center was expected to bring in $325,000 of its $1.2 million annual budget via user fees, but garnered only about $180,000.
According to people with whom Birnbaum spoke, and who overheard her, she said: "Why would anyone want to go there? It's a bad neighborhood . . . It's a ghetto, and it's full of those black people." Those present said Birnbaum then leaned in and said, in a lowered voice, "Come on, who from the rest of town is going to go there? After all, mostly black people live there. All they want to do is play basketball."
Birnbaum said she never used the word "ghetto," did not intend to hurt anyone, and is not a racist. She was apologetic, but there is also a hint of the victim in her tone. She said she can't remember how what she said differs from what was portrayed. She said she does not plan to resign her $39,500-a-year position and wants to build trust and relationships within the black community.
"I think this is an incident that has snowballed," Birnbaum told us Tuesday. "What I've learned is how words can be misinterpreted."
The leadership of Birnbaum's party, including legislative Minority Leader Kevan Abraham (D-Freeport) and Nassau Democratic Chairman Jay Jacobs, wants her to step down. Abraham has stripped her of committee assignments and removed her from the Democratic caucus, and protesters confronted her at Monday's legislature meeting.
According to North Hempstead officials, the community center is actually abuzz with activity after school -- from basketball to studying to lifting weights. Birnbaum, whom Newsday endorsed, has only visited the center during business hours, and agrees that it could be busy at other times. The idea that it is empty or unused is unfounded.
If Birnbaum had gotten up before the county legislature or a North Hempstead town meeting to bemoan the problems of segregation on Long Island and the fact that many white people in North Hempstead would never go to New Cassel, she could be praised for spurring an important conversation.
Instead, she stereotyped and denigrated an entire community in a conspiratorial tone, thinking the setting was safe. Is she the only one who thinks these things? Not by a long shot. And that's why she's the wrong person to help lead us out of these troubling patterns and prejudices.