Suffolk Closeup: ‘We are all one family’

The racial strife of recent weeks in the U.S. has reverberated in Suffolk County.

“I’m really pleased with the turnout,” said Vanessa Vascez-Corleone, an organizer of a demonstration in Riverhead. “It’s more than I expected it to be and it’s truly a multiracial crowd. This is all about standing together as one, standing up to say this killing has got to stop. We have to stop the racism in the justice system. We need to stand up in Riverhead and in every community across the country.”

Coming together — an antidote to hate.

Hillary Clinton put it well, on the day of the Riverhead protest, in an interview on NBC News: “Everyone understands that we have some very deep divides, and if we don’t start addressing them — and that’s a matter of urgency — I believe we’ll find ourselves in an even worse downward spiral. I believe we need a national conversation, and we need to start showing respect toward one another, seeing each other, walking in each other’s shoes.”

I’ve found that to be key, teaching for nearly 40 years as a professor at SUNY College at Old Westbury.

SUNY Old Westbury draws most of its students from Long Island, with plenty from the East End, and also from New York City. Old Westbury was established as an innovative, indeed experimental, SUNY campus on a former 604-acre estate. A critical event occurred with the arrival of John Maguire as the college’s president in 1970.

He had an unusual history. I interviewed him on video as part of a recent oral history done about the college. Mr. Maguire told of coming from a family in Alabama representative of the segregationist South. His grandfather was lieutenant governor of Alabama. “You could not imagine a more conservative, racist man,” he said.

As a sophomore at Washington and Lee University in Virginia, he saw a sign posted about a conference in Pennsylvania for prospective ministers. It was a chance to go to the North, where he had never been.

When he got to the Crozer Theological Seminary, he was advised that he would room with a Crozer student “from Atlanta, Georgia … You’ll like him … He’s already been named the president of the student body.”

His roommate was Martin Luther King Jr.

And that began, he said, “A a glorious friendship,” a “transformative element no doubt, in my life … We became wonderful, fast friends.” For life.

Mr. Maguire became deeply involved in the civil rights movement, was a Freedom Rider, received a Ph.D. at Yale, became a professor and a provost at Wesleyan University in Connecticut and then came to head SUNY Old Westbury.

He and the faculty developed a plan to thoroughly mix people, based originally on the figures 30-30-30-10. There would be 30 percent white, 30 percent African-American, 30 percent Latino and 10 percent Asian-American, Native American and foreign students. The vision was, explained Mr. Maguire, that “no one would feel left out, but it wasn’t so big that one group ruled the other.” The students “came together” and began “to say, ‘he’s not so bad, she’s not so bad,’ and sure enough friendships developed, and it was remarkable.”

It still is. Although the 30-30-30-10 figures aren’t used any longer, Old Westbury — its student body, faculty and administration — is extraordinarily diverse. That’s a central part of the educational experience at the college.

Last year U.S. News & World Report named it the number four college in ethnic diversity among liberal arts colleges in the U.S. It is, the publication said, “one of the top colleges where students are most likely to encounter undergraduates from different racial or ethnic groups.”

Dr. Calvin O. Butts III, the college’s president since 1999, commenting on this, said: “Old Westbury is rightfully celebrated as a college community that brings people of all races, creeds, and socioeconomic backgrounds together. Being designated among the top diverse campuses in the country reinforces that Old West-bury is at the forefront of cultivating intercultural understanding and global citizenship in its students.”

In a few weeks the new semester will begin and again I’ll marvel watching the students coming together and developing understandings and friendships. Many will not have known those of other races due to a region and nation that is not well-integrated. Studies have found Long Island to be among the most segregated areas in the country. Because of housing patterns, many of its high schools are virtually all white and then there are several virtually all black.

As Cardinal Timothy Dolan said as he spoke at St. Patrick’s Cathedral of the events of the last few weeks: “We are all one family.” Vital to bring the family together are experiences of being with others who are different. That truly works.

grossman_karl150The author is a veteran journalist and professor and a member of the Press Club of Long Island’s Journalism Hall of Fame. His Suffolk Closeup column is syndicated in newspapers across the county.