Saturday, October 18, 2014
Dear White Long Island
My upbringing and a few off-handed overt comments notwithstanding, I had never come face to face with an actual full blown example of racism in all its raw ugliness. Until last night, that is.
That evening, a young man rang my door bell. He was asking for donations for a charity to help young African American kids who lived in impoverished nations. His name was Joshua and he was himself African American. I could tell he was relatively new at this; he seemed nervous and overly anxious. Being in sales myself, I could feel some of his pain. It's hard dealing with rejection.
I decided to contribute to his cause; mostly because, I'll admit it, I felt sorry for the kid, but also because I feel good when I can help those who are less fortunate. It took a bit longer than I thought to fill out the paperwork, but the two of us got through it.
At one point he asked me if I would mind if he put on his hoodie. It never occurred to me that there would be a problem so I said sure. After all the paperwork was completed, he thanked me and I said good luck to him. Apparently, I had been his one and only "yes" that day.
A few minutes later, I left the house to pick up something to eat. As I drove down the block, I saw a cop car pulled over and the same young man who had been at my house standing in front of it, the headlights shining brightly on him. I stopped beside the cop car. I was concerned about Joshua's safety, especially since he was still wearing his hoodie.
I lowered the passenger door window and asked him if he was okay. He said yes. I then said to the cop that I could vouch for this young man and I had just contributed to his charity, to which he replied, "He still needs a permit."
Permit? The cop was concerned that Joshua didn't have a permit? That was his whole reason for pulling him over: to check if he had a permit?
And I suppose that the fact that he was black and wearing a hoodie, or that he was knocking on doors in a predominately white neighborhood had NOTHING to do with it.
Let me explain a little about the neighborhood I live in. Most of it - the men that is - is comprised of cops, firemen, sanitation men and contractors. In fact we probably have more contractors per square mile than any other town or city on Long Island. And some of those contractors are, you guessed it, cops.
The contractors are, for the most part, hard-working people who make a good living doing good work. And while I'm sure that most of them are fully licensed, I'll bet the ranch that some of them aren't. I'll also bet the ranch that none of them have ever been pulled over by a cop to prove they had all their permits.
I'll go one step further. I'll bet your ranch that if Joshua had been white and wearing a suit, he would never have been stopped in the first place. Probably because the lily-white homeowner who took a shit in his or her pants when Josh rang the door bell wouldn't have bothered to call the cops in the first place. You see I also know a thing or two about the cops in my neighborhood. They're never around when you need them and the only thing that gets them off their asses is either a football game or some frightened Caucasian bellyaching about them Negroes interrupting their Real Housewives' show.
Randy Newman had us pegged perfectly in his song "Rednecks." The North really is full of shit. We may not shoot our African Americans in the back, but we treat them with just as much disrespect as the South does. In fact, for all the talk about how piss-poor the plight of blacks are in Dixie, strange, isn't it, that the North has neighborhoods like Harlem in New York, Roxbury in Boston and the Southside in Chicago. And let's not forget about Watts in Los Angeles.
Want to see how segregated the North is? Come on out to Long Island and drive down Clinton Street between Garden City and Hempstead. In case you're not up for the trip, I'll spell it out for you: it's like going from Pleasantville to a Third World country. Or, if that's not your cup of tea, try Carmen Mill Road in Massapequa. On the west side of the road is my former High School, A.G. Berner. On the other side is East Massapequa. Want to hear a "funny" story. The kids on the east side of the street - who were close enough to the school to spit on it - couldn't attend it. That's because East Massapequa was in the Amityville school district, which was in a DIFFERENT FUCKING COUNTY! Meanwhile, my skinny white ass got safely bussed to Berner every morning. We used to see the kids across the street lining up waiting for their bus to pick them up and take them to the black school. That was the kind word that was employed back in the '70s. I won't burden you with the actual word that got thrown around, but you get the picture.
Levittown, that bastion of suburban development that helped paved the way for the white flight that took place in dozens of American cities during the 1950s, was exclusively white up until the '70s. And even then, few blacks ever had the opportunity to actually buy a house in that neighborhood. When my wife and I were looking for a house in '03, the realtor made it a point to mention that we ought to be looking for a neighborhood with "good" school districts. She showed us a home in the Salisbury section of Westbury, which is south of Old Country Road and in the Levittown school district. Meanwhile, the homes on the north side of Old Country Road were in the Westbury school district; hence they were off the table. More than 50 years after it was ruled illegal, realtors are still engaging in some form of racial profiling when it comes to which homes to show which buyers.
This shit is personal to me, but up until last night it was still primarily a macro issue. Well now it's become a micro one. I had a front row seat to it not even six doors from my house. I don't know what happened to Josh; I didn't stay around to find out and quite frankly I'm embarrassed at myself. I sincerely hope he is alright. Maybe I should've warned him not to wear that hoodie; maybe I also should've warned him that even in the "enlightened" North, a black man at night in a white neighborhood is still a huge problem for some.
You can drive just about anywhere on Long Island and you will find some of the most segregated communities in the country. The place sometimes looks more like Pretoria in Apartheid South Africa than a suburb of New York City. It outrages me that this could happen in my neighborhood but these days, anything is possible. You wouldn't think that three cases of Ebola in a country of 350 million people could produce the kind of paranoia and hysteria we've seen, but it has.
Look, I know there are plenty of good, decent white people on Long Island who are not racists. It's just a shame that the assholes who are end up embarrassing the shit out of the rest of us.