Reporting on racial discrimination on Long Island

Amityville High School, where a racial incident was reported in 2021. // Photo courtesy School Construction Consultants

By Alexa Cervo

Recent reporting has found many students of color on Long Island are discriminated against by peers and teachers, and people of color are often discreetly influenced to search for homes in non-White neighborhoods by real estate agents with segregationist agendas. 

Though Long Island is growing increasingly diverse — 45% of Nassau County’s population, for example, is now non-white — this 118-mile strip of land remains among the most racially segregated regions in the country.   

In May 2021, Drashti Mehta, a Hofstra University alumna and current editor at Law360, published an article in the Long Island Press when she interned there that examined racism accusations in a variety of Long Island school districts

The first of these took place on April 24 that year, almost a year after the murder of George Floyd, which led to the expansion of the Black Lives Matter civil rights movement. 

“What I found was that people were reacting in one of two ways” in the aftermath of Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police,” Mehta said. “They were joining the movement to help reduce racial discrimination, or… people were also in [conservative-leaning] districts feeling like they could say anything to anyone and do whatever they wanted.” 

The first incident Mehta reported on took place in Amityville, where a White math teacher and athletic supervisor reportedly referred to a Black student as “monkey” during a football game. 

The second incident occurred about two weeks later, when a sixth-grade Asian American student was shouted at by his peers, who were calling the boy a “Covid starter” and telling him to “go back to [your] country.” 

According to Mehta’s report, a Syosset School District investigation revealed there were multiple incidents like this one, with at least one of them becoming physical. 

Two other incidents occurred in the Westhampton Beach and Bellport school districts in the following days, and in what Mehta called “an interesting turn of events,” the Smithtown Central School District released a statement around that time defending itself after an organization called Save Our Schools accused officials there of being “prejudiced against White students.” 

“What I found was that people were reacting in one of two ways” in the aftermath of Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police. “They were joining the movement to help reduce racial discrimination, or… people were also in [conservative-leaning] districts feeling like they could say anything to anyone and do whatever they wanted.” 

Drashti Mehta, Journalist

“Part of the argument of critical race theory is that the issue of race, racism and slavery, up until 1865, so shaped the country that we live with the repercussions of it today,” said Alan Singer, a Hofstra professor of secondary education and author of “New York and Slavery: Time to Teach the Truth.”

“Slave labor built the infrastructure of New York City, cleared the forests on Long Island to turn it into farmland. Even after slavery ended in New York in 1827, New York banking interests remained involved in the trans-Atlantic slave trade up until the 1860s… “ Singer said. “New York State tried in the ’90s to make this part of the curriculum, but it’s not being taught.

“We can’t understand or address what’s going on in the states today unless we understand the history. Otherwise, we make choices based on ignorance,” the professor continued.

On Long Island today, racial discrimination often manifests in housing segregation. “What we see when we look back across American history is that there have been a number of strategies adopted by a number of White suburbanites and developers during particular periods to try to preserve the racial homogeneity of White suburban neighborhoods…” said Christopher Neidt, academic director of Hofstra’s National Center for Suburban Studies. “This has included developer discrimination… writing limitations on who can live in the neighborhood into the deed of the house.” 

Neidt explained that these racially restrictive covenants were declared unenforceable by the U.S. Supreme Court in the late 1940s, but discriminatory practices continued. Developers, landlords and real estate agents often worked to maintain racial homogeneity by rejecting applications, telling people of color that certain neighborhoods were “Whites only,” refusing to show people of color homes in predominantly White neighborhoods or steering them away from those towns without blatantly telling them “no.” 

In November 2019, a groundbreaking Newsday investigative series, “Long Island Divided,” brought together a team of investigative journalists and undercover testers with hidden cameras and microphones to expose “racial steering,” the practice of steering homebuyers of color away from predominately White neighborhoods. 

Statistics courtesy Bill Dedman, head of strategic planning and methodology for Newday’s “Long Island Divided” series.

The investigation took place over three years and uncovered widespread evidence of unequal treatment by real estate agents: 19% of the time in the case of Asians, 39% of the time with Hispanics and 49% with Blacks. 

Keith Herbert, a Newsday assistant managing editor as well as the investigations editor, was among the journalists who worked on the “Long Island Divided” series. He explained the reasoning behind it: “There’s a thing known as housing discrimination, and there’s a thing called the Fair Housing Act that prohibits it. There are state laws against it, and even local laws here at the county level that prohibit people from marketing homes to other people based on their race, the race of the people in the neighborhood or the school district.

“It’s illegal,” he said, “for a real estate agent to say, ‘You don’t want to live in that neighborhood because there are too many brown people,’ or ‘You don’t want to buy a home in that school district because too many Black kids go there.’ That’s marketing a home based on discrimination and race… We wanted to find out if that was going on here.” 

The investigators on “Long Island Divided” used paired testing, sending one person of a specific race and another person of a different race with the same economic standing into a real estate agent’s office to see if they were treated differently. 

“We concluded,” Herbert said, “that there does appear to be some type of distant treatment when minorities search for homes on Long Island.” 

The series uncovered that of 291 Long Island communities, most Black residents live in only 11. 

Research done in 2022 by ERASE Racism NY, an organization founded in 2001 that uses statistics to document racial inequalities in Long Island housing and public school education, found that the Island’s public school population is now just over 50% students of color, yet the number of segregated school districts has doubled since the 2003-04 school year, increasing from five to 11. 

In 2022, Newsday also investigated the number of non-White teachers in Long Island schools,  finding that only 9.5% of full-time faculty members were teachers of color. 

Is there a correlation between housing segregation and the statistical population of minority teachers on Long Island?

Singer discussed his experience working in the New York City public school system, saying the city has done a better job of diversifying its faculty than Long Island districts have. “Schools are reflections of society…” he noted. “When you have large percentages of Black and Latino populations, kids growing up impoverished, attending poor schools, they’re not going to be able to go to college and become teachers. We want the teaching staff to diversify, which is crucial, but it’s going to require broader changes in American society, changes that our society has resisted.”