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Long IslandColumnistsJoye Brown

Levy caught in storm over use of ethnic name

Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy's mouth got him into trouble again last week. This time over a single word he used toward the end of remarks to a crowd at a Martin Luther King Jr. holiday memorial breakfast.

Levy took to the podium to talk about how the number of black police officers had increased on his watch.

He talked about how Long Island is the third most segregated region in the United States, and told an audience of 800, which included whites, blacks and Latinos, that there was a long way to go to get to King's dream of equality.

Levy talked about a measure against housing discrimination that he had signed into law. And then he went on to add: "Even Shaniqua could file a complaint" or buy a house.

Ten people who were there told me they heard the remark and the nervous laughter from the crowd that followed.

On Friday, Levy said he had no idea that - although there are African-American women who proudly bear the name Shaniqua - the moniker could be used as a stereotype of a young, black female from the ghetto.

But there were people in the room who did know that.

"Our jaws dropped," said Andrea Cohen of the Suffolk County branch of the American Civil Liberties Union. "We looked at each other in amazement," she said.

The Rev. Roderick A. Pearson, pastor of St. Mark Remnant Ministries in Central Islip, said people at his table were stunned too. "They looked at me," he said, "and said, 'Did he really say that?' "

Pearson said he began to receive phone calls from people of different races saying they had been offended.

Pearson, who heads the Central Islip branch of the NAACP and Levy's African American Advisory Committee, said he has a warm relationship with Levy - which is why he talked to the county executive about the complaints by telephone later in the week. "I think that in trying to be humorous, there was a lack of sensitivity because of the stereotyping of who and what 'Shaniqua' is," Pearson said. "That stereotype is insulting to black women."

In an interview on Friday, Levy told me, "I had no idea that that name was any different than any other name in the African-American community."

He said that he would not use it again when talking about the county's housing law. But Levy also stressed - and there were those at the breakfast who agreed with him - that he intended no offense.

"What shouldn't be lost here is that I was using the name to drive home the point that discrimination will not be tolerated," Levy said.

He said he had selected a series of ethnic sounding names in his remarks - as he has done in the past, he said - to say that housing must be open to everyone, no matter their background.

The Rev. Charles Coverdale, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Riverhead, which has run the memorial breakfast for 25 years, said that neither he nor members of his church that he had talked to found offense in Levy's remark.

"I think that by using that personal name that he was saying that Shaniqua was not going to be left out," said Coverdale, who noted that he has a young woman in his congregation named Shaniqua.

He said that whenever different people of different backgrounds come together there are bound to be misunderstandings. "If we are to make any headway, like Dr. King wanted," he said, "we have to understand that what is a nuance to us is not necessarily a nuance to anyone else."

The pastor's words are wise. And true. But it is also true that Levy, in his fight against illegal immigration, has drawn criticism for making insensitive remarks about "anchor babies" and a joke about deporting "the guys in the kitchen" during a roast. Repeatedly, he shows a penchant for being out of touch with the diverse community he was elected to serve. Saying he didn't intend to offend makes the offense no more bearable.

"With his history, he has to realize that it doesn't matter what his intent was, what matters is the outcome," said Tracey Edwards, regional director of the Long Island NAACP, whose 11 chapter presidents took up the matter on Saturday. "The comments keep on coming, and they have to stop." Edwards, who said she is a Levy supporter, said the NAACP decided to send Levy a letter, and that she intends to follow that up with a telephone call and with the suggestion that Levy go through a diversity training program.

It is essential that Levy stop and think before he speaks. And as for "Shaniqua": Even if Levy didn't know, history should have taught him to surround himself with people who do. Especially if he wants to be governor of an increasingly diverse New York State.

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