U.S. Chief Justice John Roberts, writing in Shelby County, Ala. v. Holder in 2013, opined that the nation had made such strides in overcoming racism since the passage of landmark civil rights legislation in the 1960s that minorities no longer required the same legal protections to ensure equality.
Roberts was mistaken. Case in point: Nassau County, long regarded as one of the most segregated suburbs in the nation, is still mired in its own version of “separate but equal,” a way of life that is neither separate nor equal.
The fact was brought home in depressing detail in a Feb. 12 report, “Black Economic Equity,” issued by county Comptroller Jack Schnirman, enumerating the many ways in which minorities — particularly blacks — lag behind whites. In education, health care, housing, employment, access to credit or entrepreneurship, minorities succeed at far lower rates than whites, and blacks continue to come in last.
Some incremental progress was made in the decades since World War II, but studies show that that progress stalled in the 1990s and never reignited. Minorities have to work harder to achieve less than their white counterparts.
Minorities began migrating to Long Island from the South 100 years ago, in search of better jobs and freedom from racial violence. During World War II, Long Island became a hub for wartime manufacturing, and jobs were plentiful. After the war, new housing developments sprang up for returning G.I.s and their families. In certain cases, covenants prohibited selling to minorities, a kind of real estate apartheid. The result was a Balkanization that left some communities as much as 90 percent white, while neighboring communities were more than 90 percent minority.
Choose any metric, and minorities — especially blacks — are still far behind. Hempstead High School graduates a dismal 39 percent of its students, but at neighboring Garden City, the figure is 98 percent. Only 27 percent of Nassau’s 162,000 businesses are minority-owned, and a scant 7.6 percent are black-owned. Median household income in the county is 20 percent higher for whites, and whites outpace minorities in home ownership by more than 75 percent. White men earn $4 per hour more than black men, and black women are paid just 61 cents for every dollar earned by white men.
According to Schnirman, eliminating these and other deficits would add more than $20 billion per year to the county’s economy. The Urban League of Long Island calculated that closing the wage gap alone would add $4.5 billion to black income. “In addition to the human benefit, this is tax revenue Nassau County cannot afford to lose,” Schnirman wrote.
A solution to these inequities is more pressing than ever. By 2030, Nassau will be a minority-majority county, and by 2050, minorities will comprise two-thirds of its population.
So what’s the answer? According to a PolicyLink study of inequity on the Island, education is the opportunity from which all others flow. A Herald report last year demonstrated that minority children are far less likely than their white classmates to have access to the programs in elementary school that would prepare them for college preparatory or Advanced Placement classes in high school. Because of this, by the time minority children get to high school, many are too far behind to catch up.
In addition to curriculum, school funding also plays a role. Nassau County has more than 50 school districts serving a total population of 200,000 in a 285-square-mile area. Balkanization results in costly duplications of effort. For example, Valley Stream, with an area of just 3 square miles, has three elementary districts with separate administrative staffs and boards of education.
Schools are supported by property tax levies. In districts with few businesses, residential property taxes account for as much as 80 percent of school budgets. It’s easy to see how wealthy communities do better than struggling ones.
Finally, political gerrymandering limits opportunities for minority representation in government. A glance at Nassau’s legislative map shows boundaries that meander in and out, capturing neighborhoods as they go. The result? Only three minority legislators out of 19. If minorities are inadequately represented, their needs and views are almost certainly inadequately considered.
The inequities highlighted in the Schnirman report are cause for shame, but also for reflection and action. Change cannot begin at a distance, and it cannot just be a conversation.