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Relay: History of Racism Shapes a Career

Wed, 01/08/2020 - 11:49

A flip through my high school senior yearbook, and many yearbooks before mine, confirms what history already knew but what many people didn’t really talk about back then. Very few students from minority backgrounds had attended Island Trees High School in Levittown through the end of the 20th century.

My parents graduated from Island Trees in 1967 and 1972; I followed suit in 1999. I was fearless and open-minded and eager to meet new people, but I was mostly not equipped with the cultural understanding it would take to navigate a diverse world.

Island Trees, as people may recall, was involved in a book-banning lawsuit that went all the way to the Supreme Court in 1975. Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse-Five” and the book “Best Short Stories by Negro Writers” were removed from the school library. Five students banded together to push for the books to be returned. They were successful.

My first exposure to a culturally, ethnically, and economically diverse environment was summer camp, where I met kids and counselors from a variety of backgrounds. When I was 8 or 9 years old, I got to know two girls, sisters from an African-American family, whose skin tones were a little bit different from each other. Not yet knowing anything about DNA and how genetics worked, I was curious. But I didn’t know how to appropriately ask about it — or was it even okay to ask such a question? I did not know the answer to that, either.

In my senior year at Island Trees, Bob Amato, a well-respected and forward-thinking teacher of government and social studies courses, connected our public policy class with a similar group of kids at Roosevelt High School. We swapped schools for a day. Roosevelt was the opposite of my mostly white, well-resourced high school. The desks and floors were in disrepair; the textbooks were outdated and in poor condition and students were sharing them because there weren’t enough to go around. The kids were just like me, except for the color of our skin. And their school was falling apart, while mine was doing just fine.

Three years later, the New York State Education Department took over management of the Roosevelt School District. Also that year, I returned to Island Trees to coach the junior varsity dance team. The school was slightly more diverse than when I graduated. Had Levittown made progress? A smidgen, it seemed. I coached the team between 2002 and 2006, and saw the community evolve a little bit more.

My experiences growing up in Levittown helped me realize I wanted to tell stories about schools. About kids. About issues that impacted children and communities. (I’m lucky to be doing exactly that now, as The Star’s education reporter.) Public education is supposed to be society’s great equalizer, but on Long Island, equity in opportunity and resources is not universal, as evidenced in Newsday’s “Divided” project, which uncovered racial steering by some real estate professionals. Subscribe to Newsday and read it; you won’t regret doing either.

The problems identified by the newspaper’s groundbreaking investigation clearly go beyond discriminatory practices in real estate. They reach deeply into other aspects of living on Long Island, including education, safety, and quality of life. And some of the problems have permeated aspects of life on the East End.

For me, “Divided” has reaffirmed my commitment to journalism.

Christine Sampson is The Star’s education reporter and also writes about environmental issues, government, and a range of other topics.

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