I’m proud to have been raised and educated on Long Island where I raised my own family and still reside. I love living so close to the beach and the City. On so many levels, Long Island is a little piece of paradise on earth — except, of course, when you look at its system of public education.
Long Island’s public school system overflows with the stench of exclusion, disparity, and educational inequity for Black and Brown children — and it’s all legal.
Residential zoning laws that are clearly drawn along racial lines have affluent, thriving school districts and low-performing, struggling school districts living side by side, albeit with very different realities. I can’t help but think about the school district in which I was educated, the Sewanhaka Central School District. Why is it that then and now students who live in South Floral Park – also known as “Black Elmont,” a stone’s throw away from Floral Park High School — are bussed to Sewanhaka Jr./Sr. High School?
Floral Park’s student body is lily-white while Sewanhaka offers more “diversity,” shall we say. But that “diversity” is, in many ways, a thinly veiled disguise for the racist practice that keeps any public school in 2019 majority-White, with very small class sizes and elite amenities while Black and Brown students are relegated to a school that is bigger, more crowded, and has fewer resources.
This is not the only community on Long Island where educational inequality is taking place.
According to the Long Island Press,
A report released on March 26 by the Civil Rights Project at UCLA branded LI “one of the most segregated and fragmented suburban rings in the country.” The cause of such disparity is found just outside the schoolhouse walls. Rockville Centre, where Owen [a student] lives, is 88 percent white, 9 percent Hispanic and he’s a member of the 4-percent African American minority, according to U.S. Census figures. In David’s [a student] hometown of Wyandanch, he’s one of the 65-percent majority of black residents—Hispanics make up 28 percent of that community, which is 16 percent white.
There’s Dix Hills and Wyandanch; Jericho and Westbury; Smithtown and Central Islip. All of these duos are less than ten miles apart and each bear witness to this phenomenon of the haves and the have-nots of Long Island being educated side-by-side yet receiving far from the same quality of education. The White kids get more while the Black and Brown kids get less.
This historic chasm in access to resources is not accidental. It is the brainchild of White privilege. Long Island and the education that its students receive is clearly defined along racial lines. Long Island, like the rest of America, does not want to be integrated. Not only are the teachers who are hired on Long Island almost exclusively White but, to add insult to injury, schools on Long Island are more segregated now than they were pre-Brown vs. Board of Education.
Dr. Abena Asare, Ph.D, a professor of Africana Studies at Long Island’s prestigious S.U.N.Y. Stony Brook University and a resident of Long Island writes, “more than two-thirds (67%) of Long Island children attend segregated public schools. Most White children on Long Island learn in majority White classrooms and most Black or Latino children attend schools with mostly other Black and Hispanic children. Only 21% of Long Island students have the opportunity to learn in integrated schools where the student body represents the region —and these numbers are dropping. “
I remember beginning my teaching career in the North Shore School District on Long Island’s generationally affluent and exclusively all-White Gold Coast and I was baffled that in 2008 schools on every level – elementary, middle, and high – were comprised of all White students and all White teachers. I integrated the school by my mere presence there, but that was far from enough and was a very harrowing experience for me. At that time I had dreadlocks and students would touch my hair and my skin (without my permission, I might add) out of sheer amazement. Those White kids had never been up close and personal with a Black woman before! In 2008! On Long Island! If that’s not a concerning situation for students of an institution of education to have, I don’t know what is! Here I am writing about this experience eleven years later and things have only gotten worse.
With the help of organizations like Erase Racism, The Poor People’s Campaign, Building Bridges in Brookhaven, and Speak Ya Truth, there are more conversations happening on Long Island about this disparity in education. However, it’s far from enough. The stakeholders who erected these barriers have to want things to change. The fact is that they don’t want any disruption to their privileged status. They want things to stay just the way they are. Keep those Blacks and Latinx out of “their” neighborhoods and, consequently, out of “their” schools.
It’s a sad state of affairs when in 2019 the promise of integration for which my ancestors shed their blood, sweat, and tears still has yet to be fulfilled on Long Island — this Black woman’s beloved hometown.