Race is still the number one issue in America.
So the recent excellent and comprehensive Newsday investigation into racial discrimination in the Long Island real estate industry was hardly shocking to me. It sure as hell isn’t just Long Island that festers with this American sickness.
When I was growing up in a Brooklyn tenement in a working class Irish ghetto, everyone was struggling in roach and rodent-infested railroad flats. My old man worked in a factory across the street that brought an influx of Latino workers by subway. When some of those Puerto Rican laborers decided to move closer to where they worked, poor white locals freaked out. There were several senseless racial assaults of their new Latino neighbors. And for the first time I heard children of immigrants saying “When I get a job I’m moving to Long Island to get away from them.”
“Them” is still a euphemism for non-whites.
As I became a young reporter, I wrote about the “white flight” that rocked New York City in the 1960s and ‘70s. When my family moved to Staten Island, it was to a housing project a year before the 1964 opening of the Verrazzano Bridge. The projects was a step up for us to a building with elevators, bedrooms with doors on them, and a hot shower and lots of steam heat.
But I didn’t know what it felt like to be a minority until I became a “honky” in a housing project, where sometimes the city bus passed your stop like you didn’t exist. I was also called a “projects kid” by some white students of Curtis High, which had an actual tree-lined campus that looked like the one in Archie comics.
Fifty years later I was telling a Sicilian immigrant in Queens, who was a successful realtor, this story. “Why did your parents do that to you?” he asked. I looked at him and said, “Because a housing project was what my parents could afford on a factory worker’s and movie cashier’s salary.”
“Oh,” he said.
He was an immigrant who was always worrying about “so many Asians” moving into his American neighborhood. But he wasn’t the only immigrant in his Queens neighborhood with the race sickness. I was eating in my favorite Chinese restaurant in that same Queens neighborhood when the owner told me he was buying a house nearby, ironically not far from the Sicilian immigrant. I told him that was great. “Only problem, I don’t want to send my kids to the local school,” the Asian immigrant said. “Too many blacks.”
I wanted to tell the Chinese restaurateur about the Sicilian realtor who was upset that Asians like him were moving into his white neighborhood where the Asian didn’t want his kids going to school with American blacks.
As a columnist for the Daily News I covered the Eric Garner killing on Staten Island where a white cop named Daniel Pantaleo literally killed a 400-pound black man live on camera — Garner’s crime was selling “loosies,” single Newport cigarettes. “I can’t breathe,” Garner’s last words, became an anthem to the rampant racism here and everywhere. As I covered the story, I realized that Garner left behind six kids in the very same housing project where I once lived.
In any other borough of New York, Pantaleo would have been indicted for manslaughter. But then Staten Island DA Dan Donovan was planning a run for Congress so although any DA can indict a ham sandwich, Donovan failed to bring an indictment against Pantaleo in Staten Island, the borough where many of the cops who live in the city dwell. (Many more live on Long Island.)
Some stories have bittersweet endings. Donovan lost in an upset to a Democrat, an Afghan/Iraq war vet named Max Rose in the Staten Island Congressional race. Pantaleo was fired from NYPD.
All across the fruited plain the American dream is a racist nightmare. So take heart, Long Island, it’s not just our neck of the woods where race and bigotry fester.
Several years ago I was in Salt Lake City and I asked my Muslim cabbie how his kids got along with the local Mormon kids. “They don’t let them play with my kids,” he said. “Most of the Mormons moved up into the suburbs to get their kids away from Muslims and other immigrants.”
And it’s not just here in America.
I was at a fancy Manhattan restaurant last week at a fundraiser for a charity called SAVI — Sexual Assault and Violence Intervention — and there was a black men’s room attendant on duty from South Africa who’d moved to New York to escape bigotry back home. He was joined by another South African restaurant worker and I listened to them complain about the early New York cold snap.
“Not like in Jo’burg,” the attendant said.
“Still, I’d rather have the cold than the craziness back home,” said the second South African.
As I dried my hands, I told them I’d covered Nelson Mandela’s funeral in South Africa. Both told me I wouldn’t want to go there now. I asked why. “Foreigners are not safe,” said the attendant. “The xenophobia in South Africa is now horrible,” said the second one. “Not just toward white guys like you but other blacks from other African nations.”
“Mandela would be horrified,” said the attendant. “The racism and xenophobia and violent crime especially against women that Mandela deplored are hurting our country so bad that I had to leave.”
In my last column I reported on Jamari Williams of Montgomery, Alabama who, at age 10, committed suicide because bullies at school mocked his looks and the darkness of his African American skin. Everywhere I look racism flares.
Don’t get me wrong, Newsday did award-winning work on their Long Island real estate industry investigation. Hats off, take a bow. But none of it surprised me.
Because since 1619, race remains the number one issue in America.