Forum co-hosted by Anti-Bias Task Force talks about history

How can we build a just Long Island?

That was the overarching question posed at a forum held in Aquebogue Tuesday by ERASE Racism and the Riverhead Anti-Bias Task Force.

Acknowledging that structural racism exists and understanding how it impacts Long Island communities is the first step, organizers and attendees concluded.

“We are among the top 10 most racially segregated regions in the country,” said Elaine Gross, executive director of ERASE Racism.

Founded in 2001, ERASE Racism documents racial inequities on Long Island, especially in housing and public school education, in order to increase advocacy.

The group researched each of the 125 school districts on Long Island and found that the number of “intensely segregated” districts — meaning those with 90 to 100 percent non-white students — more than doubled between 2004 and 2016, despite greater diversity in the general population. “It is more racially diverse [now] than it was in 2004,” when just five school districts were intensely segregated, Ms. Gross said. But by 2016, she added, the group deemed 11 districts intensely segregated, “so clearly, [we’re] not going in the right direction.”

A trio of panelists described how Long Island’s history is steeped in racism during the forum at the Riverhead Senior Center.

David Micklos, executive director of the Dolan DNA Learning Center at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, pointed out that the Eugenics Record Office was founded in Cold Spring Harbor in 1910. Eugenics is essentially an effort to control hereditary factors to improve the human species.

“It quickly became a science. It was a normal thing that you could take if you were studying biology,” Mr. Micklos said.

It also became the basis — at the height of the largest immigration influx — for passage of the Johnson Reed Immigration Act of 1924. “[Eugenicist Harry Laughlin] testified three times before Congress to basically say that the immigrants coming into the country at the time had high rates of crime, high rates of disease, high rates of degeneracy,” Mr. Micklos said.

The legislation set country quotas and completely excluded Asian immigrants before it was reversed in 1952.

Meanwhile, during the 1950s, Long Island’s Levittown became synonymous with modern day suburbia — and housing discrimination.

As new residents flocked to the community, black families were excluded through a “restrictive covenant” in each contract stating that homes could not be “used or occupied by any person other than members of the Caucasian race.”

“Every one of us in this room and every person on this planet has a common ancestor in Africa 150,000 years ago,” he said. As for differences in eye color, skin color and hair texture? “As we left Africa and populated different areas of the world, we had to adapt to those conditions that were found.”

Anthony Zenkus, senior director of education and communications for the Victims Information Bureau of Suffolk, said that talking about racism means confronting the idea of white privilege, the idea that being white in America comes with certain privileges that people of other races are not afforded.

“That’s the disease,” he said, adding that racism was a secondary problem.

Institutionally, he said, racism has been perpetuated through Jim Crow laws, which did not go away but rather metamorphosed into mass incarceration.

“We have the largest percentage of our population in prison of any country in the world ever in history,” Mr. Zenkus said, which unjustly affects people of color. “Crime is a selective thing in the U.S.,” he noted, alluding to the 2008 financial crisis. “Not one banker — most of them being white men — ever went to jail for those crimes.” 

Panelist Miriam Sarwana, a psychology graduate student at Stony Brook University, noted that privilege along with implicit biases can quietly perpetuate systemic racism.

“It does not mean that everyone is explicitly racist, but a lot of us hold some degree of race-based bias,” she said, which can manifest even among those who are well-intentioned.

The effects of systemic racism are pervasive, Ms. Sarwana said, and disadvantage minorities in several contexts. “This phenomenon has the power to influence policies and conditions in the real world,” she said, using examples of teachers, judges, law enforcement, health care, finding homes and securing loans as a minority.

“Despondent,” “enlightened,” “anxious” and “shocked” were among the words used by some 125 attendees after listening to the panelists.

Deborah Britton-Riley of Coram, who works at Riverhead Free Library, found the presentation engaging despite being familiar with many of the issues discussed. “It didn’t change my perspective because I’m quite familiar with the majority of the information that had been presented,” she said. 

Invoking a lecture given by activist Angela Davis, she pointed out microaggression in the language used in these conversations. “She said, ‘We use the word ‘minority’ very flippantly. There’s nothing minor about me,’ ” Ms. Britton-Riley said.

Attendees then broke into smaller groups for more discussion on race and how to move forward. “We really need to look deeply inside of ourselves honestly and identify the different biases we have. It is a little bit shameful that we have all these implicit biases, but if we acknowledge them, we should be able to overcome them,” said task force member Laura Goode.

Larry Street, a Riverhead resident and member of the Anti-Bias Task Force, said that even if structural racism persists, change should begin locally. “We need to start with ourselves. There needs to be dialogue,” he said, calling for open minds.

In their groups, participants discussed how their newfound knowledge can be turned into action.

Mr. Zenkus called for consolidation of school districts and a more robust effort to bring affordable housing to Long Island. “As income inequality has risen, so have gated communities,” he said.

Many agreed on consolidating school districts to bolster inclusion while saving taxpayer money. “The schools are the silos, the breeding ground for segregation and elitism and a lot of other things,” said former Suffolk County legislator Vivian Viloria-Fisher, who attended the workshop.

Connie Lassandro, who chairs the Riverhead Anti-Bias Task Force, agreed. “I think they’re willing to listen,” she said. “I like to take it that they’re coming with an open mind, they want to understand it better. This is a start.”

Three more forums are slated, in Hempstead, Melville and Hauppauge, that will focus on structural racism on Long Island. For more information, visit

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Photo caption: Larry Street of Riverhead (center) and other Anti-Bias Task Force members led small-group discussions Tuesday night on how racism plays a role in daily life. (Tara Smith photo)