New York has enacted new laws to reduce some excessive police practices, including outlawing chokeholds and making transparent the disciplinary records of police officers. These are positive steps, and some people have suggested the ongoing protests after the tragic death of George Floyd at the hands of police can now end because they have succeeded. But needed changes have not been implemented nor have they extended to the cause of police brutality toward Black people.
That is structural racism.
It is structural racism that we must address in this context. New York, after all, is the nation’s most segregated state for African-American students with 65% of them in intensely segregated minority schools. Long Island is one of the nation’s 10 most racially segregated metropolitan regions. Both facts reflect structural racism.
Structural racism is also why America incarcerates African-Americans at more than five times the rate of whites. It is why Minneapolis Officer Derek Chauvin was confident that he could hold his knee on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes without risking his career.
Structural racism is the historical and ongoing racial discrimination, segregation, and marginalization of African-Americans in particular that is typically instigated or sanctioned by government. Long Island is renowned as the model of the post-World War II American suburb, and that model is itself an example of structural racism.
Levittown was built for white veterans returning from World War II. Black veterans who returned from the exact same fight for America abroad could not share in that dream at home. Levittown homes had racial covenants that prohibited white homeowners from reselling their homes to people who were not Caucasian.
Nationwide, the federal government required the development of racially segregated residential communities, with its practice of redlining, which began in the 1930s. It drew red lines on maps around neighborhoods with African-Americans, preventing home mortgages in those areas and thereby marginalizing the communities and their residents. In doing so, it deprived the communities of needed investments and the residents of the home equity that is so instrumental in passing wealth from one generation to the next.
The implications of redlining are indelible. Most redlined neighborhoods (74%) are still low-to-moderate-income communities, and many are majority minority. The greater wealth that accumulated in the intervening years in some communities – and not in others – still affects the personal wealth of Black residents and the inequitable funding of public education.
Long Island must address these questions:
- How long will “local control” perpetuate its segregated communities? That state policy gives localities control of land use, public services, and community benefits and perpetuates racial segregation.
- How long will African-American homebuyers receive widespread separate and unequal treatment, as Newsday found in its 2019 investigation “Long Island Divided”? Black testers experienced disparate treatment 49% of the time, compared with 39% for Hispanics and 19% for Asian testers.
- How long will the region continue to have 124 school districts – a pattern that reflects its segregated residential communities rather than educational priorities?
- How long will it tolerate the inequitable funding of public schools that reflects the disparities in wealth accumulated under redlining and which has not been addressed with alternative funding strategies?
Long Island's future should be bright for all Long Islanders. For that to happen, we must confront the continuing impact of structural racism. Police excesses reflect structural racism. Removing some of them does not mean structural racism disappears.
Elaine Gross is president of the regional civil rights organization ERASE Racism.