As a young black woman, I often ponder whether I will be judged by my appearance rather than my qualifications and character. There are thousands of young people of color on Long Island who wonder, just as I do, whether they will confront discrimination because of their race.
After I graduated high school in 2014, my family decided to buy a house on Long Island. Born and raised in Queens, I was ready for a change and became involved in my family’s search for a new home. I knew my family’s budget and what we wanted. I remember real estate agents showing my parents homes in several neighborhoods, but mostly in areas such as Amityville, Hempstead, East Meadow, Baldwin and Roosevelt (predominantly minority or racially diverse). My dad spoke with a few of his co-workers from Long Island about our family’s house hunting. His co-workers, many of whom were white, encouraged him to search for homes in neighborhoods like Bellmore, Levittown, Rockville Centre and Massapequa (predominantly white) because of the good school districts.
I will never forget visiting a house in Levittown in 2014. It was the most beautiful house I had ever seen. The front yard was huge, the house was wide and tall. I remember looking out into the spacious backyard and imagining my dad barbecuing. I saw a life for my family, which includes three younger sisters, there.
I expressed my love for the house: “This is it, family!" I said. "This is our new home!”
But I could feel the disappointment rushing through my body and strongly showing on my face when my dad said, “Britny, look around ... I don’t see anyone who looks like me, I don’t feel comfortable ...”
I interrupted, “Daddy, we can be the first black people on the block.” I knew that would be true given that only 1.4% of all Levittown residents are black, according to recent census data.
My dad explained that he didn’t want to feel like he was constantly being watched. He wanted to be able to work on the house or drive around the neighborhood without being policed by neighbors simply because of the color of his skin. Although it was our decision not to live there, it was ultimately a brutal history of racial discrimination and segregation that fueled my father’s concerns and ruled out Levittown as a place to call home. Instead, my family moved into a beautiful home in Uniondale. And as indicated by Newsday's "Long Island Divided" investigation, and my family's experience with agents, that history is reinforced by racial steering.
Fifty-one years ago, the federal Fair Housing Act was signed. The promise of this landmark law was that it could help eradicate housing discrimination, repair the harm that had been inflicted on people and communities of color over many decades, and begin building a more integrated society.
Sadly, the current national rate of African American homeownership is lower than it was in 1968. Most neighborhoods and schools on Long Island remain segregated. As evidenced by Newsday's investigation, racial discrimination in housing persists. The Fair Housing Act has never been vigorously enforced. The government has never fully implemented its duty to “affirmatively further fair housing” in all housing and community development activities.
Unless or until these things are done, tragically, Long Island will likely remain divided.
Britny McKenzie, a Uniondale resident, is the policy coordinator for the Fair Housing Justice Center in Long Island City, a nonprofit civil rights organization.