Dozens of residents from Elmont and across Nassau County gathered at the Elmont Memorial Library for the second-ever State of Black Nassau County panel discussion on March 2. The event sought to connect residents with local officials and encourage them engage in a conversation about the issues facing Elmont and other communities of color in the county.
The topics focused on the structural racism that continues to plague all of Long Island within its systems of income, housing, schools, healthcare and justice. Nassau County Legislator Carrié Solages, who hosted the event, said he had received calls from constituents claiming that holding such an event was racist because it focused on the problems of one demographic rather than the whole community, but Solages refuted such critiques.
“There is nothing wrong with tackling the issues facing African-Americans because it helps all Americans,” Solages said.
The panelists, who were made up of Nassau County officials and advocates for African-American equality, agreed that large disparities between black and white residents in the county persisted despite decades of progress. Nassau County Comptroller Jack Schnirman highlighted these disparities in his recently published Black Economic Equity Study. The report presented statistics from the United States Bureau of Labor, which revealed that unemployment rates were twice as high in black communities than in white ones.
He said that if this trend persisted, Nassau’s economy would be threatened as the county moves to becoming minority-majority before 2040. Schnirman added that Nassau has already seen this issue hurt its economy for the past four years.
“Our study revealed that Nassau County would have been $24 billion stronger in 2014 if racial gaps in income were eliminated,” he said.
Elaine Gross, president of the ERASE Racism, said that economic inequity was just one of the factors contributing to Long Island’s structural racism. Gross explained the concept of structural racism through a metaphor involving a race between an older white man and a younger black woman. On the racetrack, the man may have one or two hurdles before him, but the woman would have an unrelenting number of obstacles that make it practically impossible for her to finish the race. Gross said it was the government and society’s responsibility to remove those obstacles from the race.
ERASE Racism — which advocates for racial equity in housing, education and community — has worked for years to tackle the fact that despite progress in civil rights, Nassau County is still grappling with severe racial segregation. Gross said that Long Island’s history, in which black Americans were prohibited from buying homes in the suburbs during the 1950s, set the state for it to remain among the most racially segregated suburbs in the Northeast. Gross and her organization have filed several lawsuits against discriminatory housing practices throughout the county, which are meant to address what often constitutes first obstacle facing black people in the area, contributing to Nassau’s structural racism problem.
“Lack of fair housing enforcement sustains residential segregation, which in turn supports government fragmentation,” Gross said as she explained the makeup of community borders. “That ensures unequal education, which contributes to economic inequality. Economic inequality fuels concentrated poverty, and that’s kept in place by a lack of fair housing enforcement. So the cycle continues. That’s structural racism on Long Island.”
In regards to unequal education, Lawrence School District Director of Academic Affairs William Moss explained that because black and other minority students were suspended at higher rates than white students throughout the state, they are deprived of a proper education. As previously reported by the Herald, students who were suspended often fall into a cycle in which they are seen as “problematic students” upon suspension from school, and continue to act out and become disengaged from their studies because they feel as if their teachers and schools have given up on them.
Moss said that possible solution could be found in seminar-in-lieu-of-suspensions or SILO programs. These programs, such as the new Academic Learning Center in the Sewanhaka Central High School District, keep suspended students in a separate school building where they engage in full-day classes and have access to district social workers and counselors. Moss said that the remediative nature of such programs ensure that every child has access to an education rather than spending their suspension days outside of school. Sewanhaka had previously reported by the end of 2018 that repeated suspensions have gone down since the installment of the ALC in the fall.
“Suspensions do not serve human kind,” Moss said. “The time a student spends with a teacher is a precious commodity.”
The final issue the panel discussed pertained to the racial makeup within Nassau County’s criminal justice system. Two officers from the Fourth Precinct, who were young black men, urged other residents of color to take advantage of the county’s continued push for inclusion. Officer Ahmed Kessba shared his own story about joining the Nassau County Police Department more than a decade ago. His family had told him that, as a Muslim African-American, taking the police officer exam was a waste of time and money, but Kessba forged ahead and now serves as a member of the department’s community affairs unit.
Kessba said that with the stories of police brutality circulating throughout social media more than ever now, he understood why communities of color would be hesitant to join, but added that the solution lies in increasing minority demographics within the criminal justice system. Although the $100 fee to take the police officer exam may be a barrier to entry, there were some waivers available for residents of color. Stewart Moore, of the Amistad Long Island Black Bar Association, agreed that there was a lack of black and minority representation throughout the system.
“Less than five percent of the people in the criminal justice system on Long Island look like you and I, and that’s a problem,” Moore said as he addressed the predominantly black audience.
The panelists agreed that the first step to creating a more equal Nassau County was to recognize where the disparities fall. While the county has not conducted an inequality report since 2003, officials said that the legislature would push for one to be included in the 2019 budget. Schnirman added that with the census coming up in the summer, hard-to-measure communities of color like Elmont needed to strive for an accurate count in order to get “its fair share of government resources.”