"It seems kind of funny to me that you all have, what, 175 school districts?" Andrew Young, the civil rights leader, former congressman and mayor and former ambassador to the United Nations, told a group of 145 Long Island high school students Wednesday.

"I don't know why anybody picked that number," he said, during a 90-minute session on race and racism Wednesday with students from districts scattered across Nassau and Suffolk counties.

Young, in Garden City Wednesday to receive an award from ERASE Racism, appeared to be genuinely puzzled about the region's rabbit-warren-like maze of bureaucracies.

But on Long Island, everybody knows that Long Island's 124 school district lines follow community lines, which means that most are racially and economically segregated, which means that students in the richest of schools get a rich education while kids in the poorest get a poor one.

Schools on Long Island also represent something else, though: They're the place where the region's accelerating demographic evolution is playing out right now.

They're the place where change can - and should - begin as the region becomes more diverse.

"Most teenagers, we say, like, racist things as jokes," one student, who identified herself as Laura, said to Young as the group posed for photos after the session.

"Does that mean we'll grow up to be racist?"

"No," Young, 78, told the teen, gently.

But, he went on, picking up on the theme he had hammered home earlier, "You have to find a way to make an environment so people don't have to feel like they are outsiders."

That is essential, he said, because insecurity is at the root of racism, which often starts as bullying.

"People get scared, but instead of addressing a specific problem, like the economy, they begin to blame the problem on other groups," he told them.

"Racism is a kind of a sickness," Young said. "You don't get mad at sick people, you try to help them. You don't get mad, you get smart."

Smart means talking to different people, he said. It also means swapping prejudice for information. Which ought to bring Young's lesson to local adults too.

Take new immigrants, for example, the fastest growing population in Nassau and Suffolk. They're not stopping in New York City as earlier waves of immigrants did. They're heading straight out to Long Island and other suburbs.

Most of Long Island's immigrants are legal, said Larry Levy, executive director of Hofstra's National Center for Suburban Studies - although many other longtime residents may assume otherwise.

Young challenged students to use their smarts in making a stand against racism on Long Island. He said there were no barriers to what they could do, pointing out that Martin Luther King once earned a "C" in a college public speaking class and another "C" in a seminary preaching class.

"If you think things through before they start to happen," he said, "you can stop them from happening."

It's a challenge that came too late for another local teenager, Anthony Hartford, who Wednesday became the last of seven defendants to plead guilty or be convicted in the death of Ecuadorean immigrant Marcelo Lucero.

Young, in an interview, suggested that ERASE Racism analyze what went wrong in that case. "You want to look at something like this and say, 'What can we have done to prevent this, so you don't have to wait for the next death or a murder.' "

Kelly Yu, 17, a junior from Connetquot High School, said she'd been thinking of starting an Asian-American cultural association at her school even before hearing Young speak. "He's given me a lot of ideas of what a group like that can do," she would say later. "I think he's given a lot of us a lot of ideas."

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