Visualizing Anti-Black Racism on Long Island
Using Data to Examine the Suburb’s History of Structural Racism
I’ve had an awakening in recent years and it makes sense that it coincides with the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement. I realized that the place where I grew up is very racist.
While I’ve learned this more through racist actions and the expression of racist ideas, my research over the last month has made it clear that structural racism (largely stemming from racist policies) is simply embedded into the fabric of Long Island.
This runs contrary to my impressions growing up, when I was taught about the history of slavery and segregation in the southern part of the country. But even many adults today would be surprised to learn just how segregated regions in the northeast can be. Segregation and wealth disparities along racial lines are fairly well known in a place like New York City — just compare some of the outer boroughs to the southern half of Manhattan. But many don’t understand the racial inequities of American suburbs quite as well.
Thus, I have chosen to focus on Long Island for this post, which should also paint a picture of several suburbs around the country. I am also focusing on anti-black racism so the breadth of this post is not too wide. But other minorities absolutely suffer from similar disparities as Long Island’s black residents.
Long Island’s population growth reached its peak in the 50’s and 60’s, following World War II. This so-called suburban boom took place as many left life in city centers to purchase homes on the outskirts of cities. This rise was fueled by policies such as the GI Bill, which guaranteed low interest mortgages to veterans, but that did not preclude from discrimination against offering these mortgages or other loans to Black veterans.
Meanwhile, the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) provided federal backing of loans (beginning before WWII), but redlining was used to largely limit these loans to only prospective white home buyers. (Maps were divided into colored zones and the predominantly-black areas were deemed “hazardous” and people in these areas would be denied loans.)
Redlining helped shape New York City, but it was not prevalent on Long Island because there were not many Black people on the island to begin with. But these policies clearly led a disproportionately high white percentage of the population to migrate from New York City out east. (Despite the fact that many Black families faced difficult conditions and high rents in Harlem.)
Thus in 1960, only about 3% of Long Island’s population was black and that figure still did not reach 5% a decade later.
The development of Levittown on Long Island was the prototype for post-WWII suburban communities around the country. The private-housing community attracted many WWII veterans, but it would not allow Black People to purchase property. The FHA authorized “racial covenants” that allowed only white homebuyers to move in. With the GI bill and other federal housing policies, the up-front cost of buying a house in Levittown was greatly reduced. As late as 1960, none of Levittown’s 82,000 residents were black.
Additionally, Robert Moses, Long Island’s main architect constructed the suburb to be highly car-centric through the development of several major roadways. Robert A. Caro, Moses’ biographer, described Moses as “the most racist human being I have ever encountered.” He designed bridges on the Southern State Parkway, the main connection between New York City and Long Island’s beaches, to be very low. Many believe that this was done purposefully to prevent buses carrying Black people from coming out to the beaches. Regardless of Moses’ intentions, Long Island’s infrastructure may have been another barrier to Black migration.
With some Long Island communities restricting black people from purchasing homes, segregated communities began to form. I will use census tracts in this post to get a sufficiently granular look at Long Island communities. Here is a look at the black population across Long Island over time:
Even after 60 years, many of the same black communities that formed during the population boom remain isolated from largely white communities. Here is another way to visualize segregation using the most recent map of the black population on Long Island:
The prevalence of color on this map is another indication of the segregated nature of Long Island communities. But a look at where the majority of the black population lives presents an even more staggering picture of the severity of the segregation:
If you break it down even further, most of Long Island’s black population lives in just 11 out of 291 “communities.” Half of the zip codes with the most black people are directly to the west of the Meadowbrook Parkway, illustrating how highways helped to shape Long Island. In many cases, they could be used as barriers to mark literal lines of segregation.
Perhaps the most salient type of disparity in segregated areas are related to wealth and income.
To connect segregation between blacks and whites with the wealth gap, please check out my interactive map, which allows you to filter the economic data for each tract based on the black or white population percentages.
Property ownership is essential to wealth accumulation. With less ability to purchase homes during the Long Island growth boom (and in the decades that followed), black families have been disadvantaged.
A lack of wealth can lead to many disparities, including being unable to afford higher education. This, in turn, along with discrimination, leads to income disparities.
But when you look at more affluent black families, the data becomes even more startling.
Tracts that contained at least 500 Black households with six-figure incomes somehow had a lower average median HH income ($112,320) than the average Long Island median HH income ($115,475) in 2019. This underscores Long Island’s segregation when even the wealthiest black families tend not to live in communities with families making equivalent incomes. In other words, Long Island is segregated more along racial lines than by income levels.
Finally, I have mentioned the car-centric nature of Long Island, so I would like demonstrate that these economic inequalities further disadvantage Black people living there. The lack of a car can create barriers to commuting to work or to traveling to other essential locations, further reinforcing the disparities I am discussing.
Families looking to move to or around Long Island generally will cite school districts as the biggest factor in selecting a house. Seeking a community with a better school district is often a thinly veiled way of looking for a whiter town. Accordingly, segregated school districts (based on segregated communities) are at the heart of Long Island’s racial disparities.
New York State created a need/resource capacity index, which measures a “district’s ability to meet the needs of its students with local resources.” It is calculated by taking the ratio of the estimated poverty percentage of its community to the a measure of the wealth per pupil. Districts with high scores (above the 70th percentile on the index) are deemed “high need” school districts. Districts with this designation on Long Island had much higher proportions of black students.
Even though higher-need school districts receive more state and federal aid, lower-need districts still are able to spend more per student. This is largely due to higher property taxes in the wealthy areas in which these low-need districts are located. This can be especially devastating to black students because they don’t get access to the same quality education despite having more of a need for it. (These are labeled “High Need” districts for a reason.)
To take a deeper look at public school district black-white segregation, take a look at this interactive map. This uses data on students who receive free lunches, which can be used as a proxy for families that are at or near poverty levels.
And lastly, when I say that “higher-quality” school districts are code for less integrated communities on Long Island, you will probably believe me with this evidence:
This, in turn, leads to easier paths for white student to be admitted to elite universities (or any four-year colleges) before even taking affordability into account.
The economic and educational challenges I have discussed are among several factors that can contribute to health disparities between blacks and whites. Access to adequate health care can be difficult to afford in the United States. Poorer work (or school) conditions and inadequate access to fresh foods can further contribute to health inequities. It also doesn’t help that hospitals do not tend to be located in highly-concentrated black communities, especially for those with more limited transportation options.
And we are all familiar in recent years with the disparate treatment of black people by law enforcement. It is no different on Long Island and the distinct segregation allows police to set their focus on certain communities.
While pure discrimination is surely a factor, financial capabilities probably also contribute to the more disproportionate treatment as the punishment becomes more severe.
It’s Not Getting Better
I figure at this point the prevailing thought might be something like: “Thanks for the history lesson, but it’s 2021 and the gap between blacks and whites is surely shrinking at this point.” (Ok, you may not be thinking that because the sample of people who would have read all the way up to this point is surely biased…but many would.)
While the black percentage of Long Island’s population has been increasing, it has become even more segregated in the 21st century. “Dissimilarity” is one metric that was created to measure segregation.
A major contributing factor to continued segregation on Long Island is something called “racial steering.” Long Island’s local newspaper, Newsday, conducted an investigation between 2017 and 2019 and discovered that black home seekers and white home seekers with the same financial profiles and location parameters were given different listings. (More white neighborhoods for the white seekers and more black for the black seekers.) This is supposed to be illegal under the Fair Housing Act, but Newsday’s undercover experiment proved it is still prevalent today. In fact, there was unequal treatment of the black and white home seekers in nearly half of the “tests.” Newsday has only some of its data publicly available, not including the tests in which there was no bias. So here is a look at some of the extreme cases:
New York State recently announced that it will deploy its own undercover testers to try to combat this.
In addition to the segregation battle, the aforementioned accumulation of wealth by owning homes continues to widen the gap. While I mentioned earlier that Black people were disadvantaged because many could not own homes following the suburban boom, even Black homeowners today will not see their wealth increase at the same rate as whites because their homes (often in poorer areas) are valued less.
While property values were very close in all 20 of those communities 40 years ago, the tracts have clearly seen values appreciate at different rates. Everything began with and continues with housing value disparities that create these negative feedback loops for Black families.
So what can be done now? It seems that disparities originate with Long Island’s housing segregation, which fuels the school district segregation. Thus, plans like the state’s “tester” initiative from above will be most helpful. Any additional funding that can be given to largely black communities would also go a long way towards mitigating some of the inequities I have discussed. This includes making loan and mortgage policies more equitable. And overall, everyone should be mindful that segregation exists just as it has throughout the history of this country. It exists in cities, suburbs, northern states and in schools.
I can understand why I may have been ignorant in the past about many of these issues. I grew up in relatively segregated neighborhoods, even though I thought segregation was only something that occurred in the south in previous centuries. I grew up in a village where there is a Robert Moses statue, went to a high school where there have been racist accusations in recent years, and I have spent several years tutoring high schoolers from wealthier areas of Long Island, reinforcing the vicious cycle of disparities. With all this now in mind, I find it easy to be motivated to bring change. This is also why the Black Lives Matter movement is valuable, as just bringing awareness to something like racial injustice is enough to make an impact.
At the very least, it is easy enough to not be tolerant of racist attitudes, because while it may be difficult to undo the damage of policies from nearly a century ago, diminishing the impact of racist ideas is also a step towards progress.
Watch my presentation of this project at the Spring 2021 MQM Data Visualization Competition at Duke Fuqua:
Data Sources: Census Data, Public Schools Data, NY Location Data (roads, schools), Dissimilarity Index Data, NY Health Data, Car Data, USWNR Public HS Rankings Data, NY Crime Data, Hospital Location Data, Newsday Data
Check out my github for some of the datasets that I manually constructed.