We’ve always striven here to be a news outlet that anyone from any culture can call an ally, and we hope that if you are a person of color reading this editorial you feel welcome. We know we have more work to do and, though we’re a tiny business now, we’re committed to representing the full diversity of our community as we grow.
The East End of Long Island is an overwhelmingly white place, and as such, the message we would like to send right now is one to our white readers: the pain that is rocking our nation right now is something that you have an obligation to do your part to fix.
Yes, it’s the summer, time here for picnics on the beach and afternoons out cruising the Peconic Bays or relaxing in a beachside bar. The rest of the world is right beyond that perfect sunset. The time is overdue for everyone here to get ready to share that perfect sunset with all of our neighbors.
White people in this country, even those of us who don’t think we are racists, have gotten used to using an outdated language to talk about race. Topping this language is the word “minority,” which on its face is an inadequate word to use to talk about race. Within 25 years, the United States is likely to become a majority ‘minority’ country, rendering this term completely obsolete. People whose skin is a different tone than white are not automatically in the minority anywhere anyway, especially in a country that remains so viciously segregated decades after formal segregation was outlawed.
In the decades our staff has been covering news on the East End, we’ve heard a lot of code language from people who would like things to remain the way they are. Top contender: “We need to preserve our way of life.” When people come to board meetings to complain about policies that may help people who look different from them, the terms we hear most often are people railing against “density” or “overcrowding.” Lately we’ve been hearing more words like “overpopulation” and that is where things get really chilling.
When white families crowd en masse without wearing masks to watch the sailboat races from the bay beaches, we hardly ever see a police presence, even though the crowds are in clear violation of New York’s coronavirus beach restrictions. When brown families take to our Sound beaches to go fishing for food for their families, they’re now being chased off the beach by police officers on quads.
One of best memes we’ve seen recently on the interweb states pretty simply: “Racial justice doesn’t mean you have to be extra nice to your four black friends. It means you have to stand up to your 50 racist white friends.”
The cracks in white America’s collective amnesia about race were bound to show at a time when our country was under the stress of a global pandemic. But what we’ve seen to date are really just the first stress fractures of a thoroughly rotten foundation. This will affect us here at home, and we need to prepare to be part of the solution.
It was an encouraging sign to see so many voters cast ballots to support school budgets across the East End this spring, but the one spot where we see a looming disaster is in Riverhead, whose budget was shot down.
As the only central school district on the East End, and also one of the most racially diverse, Riverhead educates nearly 5,600 students each year, nearly three times more students than other large districts here. Hampton Bays educates just over 2,000 students. The Southampton Union Free School District educates just over 1,500 students and Mattituck-Cutchogue has just over 1,100.
Riverhead schools are struggling to pay their bills in part because of an influx of students from other areas, as people of modest means are forced out of the rest of the East End by rising property values.
Across the nearly two dozen school districts on the East End, the lowest student-teacher ratios and the most affluent schools can be found in the neighborhoods with the most white people. Not coincidently, the land owners in these districts also pay some of the lowest property taxes on some of the most pricey land here.
Everywhere that you find a school district that is struggling financially here, you will find a place where land values are low enough that people without means can get a toehold, but where school taxes will ultimately cripple their ability to build any lasting equity. These are also the places where many recent immigrants and people of color can also find a toehold. This is no coincidence. This is the essence of systemic racism. If we ever want to make lasting change, we must rethink the way we fund schools. Wealthy property owners are not going to give this up without a fight. How many of us are up for taking this on?