Parrish Williams: Let's talk about race

Some resist seeing the Florida shooting as a Some resist seeing the Florida shooting as a story about race. Perhaps because it lacks some of the brazen markers of a bias crime or it's hard for them to accept that people today are still motivated by racism. Photo Credit: Sara Schwartz/inxart.com

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Deidra Parrish Williams is executive director of NuHealth Foundation, based in East Meadow.

 

The killing of Trayvon Martin has galvanized the nation, and more than a month after the shooting the wheels may be inching toward justice. As the investigations play out, it seems implausible that shooter George Zimmerman won't face some sort of criminal charge. But what will happen when it's all over?

Like in 2006, when John White killed Daniel Cicciaro Jr. in Miller Place and NYPD officers killed Sean Bell in Queens, and 1991, when officers in Los Angeles beat Rodney King, and going back to 1955, when images of Emmett Till's mangled corpse circulated the country -- we have again ripped open one of our nation's oldest and most delicate wounds. But as painful as it is, we must seize this opportunity to have a broader discussion about race in our country, and on Long Island.

Some resist seeing the Sanford, Fla., shooting as a story about race. Perhaps that's because it lacks some of the brazen markers of a bias crime. Or maybe it's hard for them to accept that people today are still motivated by racism. To be fair, none of us know what was in Zimmerman's head or heart.

But certainly, an element of the public outrage about the killing is decades of pain and frustration over racism in this country that has become so entrenched that many of us fail to see it.

A few years ago in a Long Island stewardship workshop about institutional racism, many of my classmates -- educated business leaders -- were stunned to learn about the covenants that kept blacks from buying homes in Levittown, our celebrated first suburban community.

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They were also taken aback to see large clusters of red dots on a map denoting the chronically disproportionate share of unflattering characteristics -- high poverty, high crime, poor performing schools -- in places where Long Island has located its minority populations: Hempstead, Roosevelt, Bay Shore, Wyandanch. Peeling back the onion reveals that years of duplicitous real estate, lending and organizing formed our still grossly separate and unequal communities.

"I always thought black people moved to those places because they wanted to live together, not because they were steered there," a surprised executive said.

That executive may have also been surprised to know that when my husband, who is black, was younger, he was confronted and asked to leave public streets by Garden City police. In the 1980s, relatives of mine in Hempstead took in a white teenager after her father beat her up and threw her out for dating a black boy. Later, in 1997, the president of a Garden City mortgage company told me he wasn't sure my husband and I could read when we challenged an unapproved increase in our interest rate during the closing on our first house. And in 2004, a merchant in Queens, frustrated that I was browsing and not buying, spat at my feet and called me the N word.

We've insulated ourselves from the truth about racism in America to the extent we outright deny it. But that sometimes leaves us with grossly illogical explanations for what's happening before our eyes. Maybe more Long Islanders than I care to know subscribe to the world-renowned scientist James Watson's 2007 assertion about the intellectual inferiority of blacks, rather than consider how the chronic neglect many local minority communities have suffered might affect educational gaps. Maybe they believe that jails are overwhelmingly populated by minorities because of a predisposition to criminal behavior, rather than any inequities in our criminal justice system.

And maybe they assume that boys with brown skin -- hooded or not, educated or not, alone or in groups -- are suspicious and should be treated as such.

We should use this moment to open discussions on racism at all levels -- from families to classrooms to courts and beyond -- so we can move attitudes and actions about race forward. President Barack Obama ventured into these tall weeds, cautiously, when he said last week that "all of us have to do some soul searching . . . examining the laws and the context."

He's right. If we don't, we'll live to see this wound weep again.

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