Saturday, October 18, 2014

Dear White Long Island

I'm not naive. I know that racism exists everywhere, not just in places like Ferguson, Missouri or Sanford, Florida. I grew up in one the most segregated neighborhoods on Long Island and saw it first hand. We had a saying in Massapequa Park: If you were black you were obviously lost.

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.


Prof. Walter Jameson said...


Levittown ... ah, yes, a community truly spawned from the minds of racists back in the late 40s. To this, there is no question. Did you know that there were racially restrictive covenants in each and every original home sales contract? Oh yes! Right on Long Island, in the state of New York. Homes could not be rented or sold to anyone but members of the white race. A few years later (early 50s, I believe) the U.S. Supreme Court did rule that such covenants were legally unenforceable, but that didn't really have much of an effect at all. As a matter of fact, at that particular time, even the FHA would not grant mortgages to any development that was going to be racially heterogeneous. And it didn't even matter if the non-white prospective home buyers served honorably in WWII. So, one could really say that this federal policy provided the justification for the Levittown racial covenants. Just another sad part of our history.

Now to the primary subject of your essay; the event that spurred you to put "pen to paper." I do have some familiarity with Long Island and its various communities. In addition to having many relatives who live there, I was also a visiting professor at both Stony Brook and LIU for a number of years. I understand what you're saying here about this young man who came to your door seeking a donation for his charity. I also understand, and appreciate, your life experiences that have informed, and fueled, your passion on racial matters. However, I also know that passion can sometimes cloud one's reasoning. In that respect, let me challenge some of the assumptions that you've made in your essay ..... because, after all, challenging assumptions is among the things I do.

As is true in many suburban areas, a lot of Long Island households have their doorbells rung by any number of salespeople, religious proselytizers, charities of all kinds and political and environmental advocates. Some people welcome these encounters; most view them as intrusions. Heck, I know some individuals who would call the police on the Girl Scouts if they rang their doorbell. I am not kidding. Even though that might be a bit extreme, it is that type of sentiment (to a lesser degree, obviously) that made the many municipalities on Long Island pass ordinances requiring permits for any door-to-door solicitations -the legal kind, of course.

Here are the facts as I understand them to be: A young man of color was going door-to-door in your neighborhood seeking donations for a charity. Your donation, up to that point, was the only one that he got from your neighborhood. He then left your house to continue seeking donations in your neighborhood; minutes later, you left your house to grab a bite to eat. Upon proceeding down your block, you notice that this young man is being confronted by a police officer. You pull up alongside the patrol car to find out what's going on. You offer to vouch for the young man's bona fides to the police officer. The police officer informs you that the young man still needs to have a permit in oder to seek donations for his charity in your municipality.

Here are your assumptions, stated or strongly implied: The police officer didn't have a good reason to confront the young man. The young man was stopped primarily because of his race. If the young man were white and wearing a suit he would not have been stopped by the police because a "lily-white" homeowner (who supposedly called the police) would have found him to be more acceptable and less intimidating. The young man's encounter with the police officer may not have gone well because of racial prejudice. Someone actually called the police on the young man.

Prof. Walter Jameson said...

... Cont.

Wow, where to begin. Sir, let me first say that I do enjoy your writing. That's why I keep returning to your blog. And, believe me, I read large amounts of material every day. I know good writing from bad. Your writing is very good. Having said that, if you were in my class, the arguments and assumptions that you're making here would be mercilessly picked apart. How do you know that the police were even called and that the officer wasn't just on routine patrol through the area, where he observed an individual going door-to-door? Your community has an established ordinance requiring a permit for door-to-door solicitations, correct? Typically, the police department is informed when those permits are issued. If an individual - a "lily-white" homeowner, as you say - did indeed call the police, how do you know that it wasn't due to this young man not having a permit to solicit funds for his charity? If a "lily-white" homeowner did call the police, how do know that they wouldn't have called the police on ANYONE who didn't have a permit? And while we're at it, why do use the odious racial pejorative "lily-white"? You can be a strong advocate for racial equality without resorting to racial self-hatred, you know. Finally, with regard to the young man's stop by the police and its aftermath, why the gloomy tone? One of two scenarios very likely played out: The young man produced a valid permit and was allowed to continue his activity ... or the young man did not produce a valid permit and was told to stop his activity. No arrest, just a warning. Call your local police department and make an inquiry, if you're truly concerned. Stop speculating and put your mind at ease.

In all of this, you do redeem yourself somewhat with this statement: "Look, I know there are plenty of good, decent white people on Long Island who are not racists." Well, to be quite frank with you, I don't think for one moment that you actually believe it. It just doesn't follow from all that has been written prior. But, you know what? In all fairness, that really is just an assumption on my part - and it may be entirely wrong.

Thank you for the opportunity to respond.