Long Island through a lens … ‘whitely’

By Frank Pomata, a resident of Patchogue

When I moved from Brooklyn to suburban Long Island as child in the early 1970’s, I immediately sensed a difference.

Being only nine years old, I couldn’t quite identify why, but I remember feeling like an outsider, especially since we moved in March right in the middle of the school year. The neighborhood and my school were very homogenous, and we had to have our parents drive us everywhere instead of being able to walk to the park or store.

Back in Brooklyn, one of my best friends was Arabic-American (from Saudi Arabia to be precise); Abdu Malahi. We met through our parents. My father was an accountant and worked on Mr. Malahi’s business taxes, so he visited their house regularly. I recall the strange smells and his mother always trying to get me to eat exotic foods. Abdu and I lost touch after we moved, but one day not long ago I decided to Google his name out of curiosity. To my immense sadness I learned that he was one of the Muslim casualties of the horrific tragedy at the World Trade Center on 9/11.

On Long Island, my neighborhood of Islip Terrace and my best friends were almost exclusively white, with one exception (a Hispanic boy, Rick, who we befriended when his grandmother moved down the block when we were in high school).

One of the more painful aspects of moving to Long Island was the bullying my friends and I endured from several older boys on our block. They regularly harassed us verbally and sometimes physically on the way to and from school. It got to the point that my parents insisted I learn martial arts to defend myself. I never really understood why they bullied us. It seemed to give them a demented form of satisfaction, I think. I believe that early bullying made me a lifelong supporter of the underdog, the person on the outside looking in, and shaped my worldview in ways I couldn’t fully appreciate at the time.

Interestingly, years later, I was at the gym in East Islip and encountered one of my former tormentors. He came over and offered what seemed to be a sincere apology explaining to me his rationale.

“We thought you were Puerto Rican.”

I was dumbfounded, but thanked him for the apology while being totally appalled at his justification for treating me so poorly.

At Long Island University’s C.W. Post campus, I dormed one semester in a triple room with two African American guys (Rich and Mitch) I’d met during orientation. Over spring recess in 1983 our room was vandalized, items were stolen and “The Oreo Room” was scrawled on the door. The resident manager of the dorm was less than helpful at the time. I recall being very upset, but noticed that my two roommates, while not pleased, seemed to accept it for what it was more readily than me. I don’t think they even bothered lodging a complaint and the perpetrator(s) were never identified. I suppose our hallmates objected for some reason to us residing in the same room, and yet it had never been mentioned to me, nor do I even recall getting any funny looks or comments from any of my fellow hallmates.

After school, my various jobs in New York State government, higher education, and later human services, took me to neighborhoods that most of my white peers had heard of but never visited. While I knew of these neighborhoods, they were often isolated and easily bypassed by the many highways that crisscross our island. These neighborhoods were predominantly poor, “brown” in terms of demographics, mostly portrayed negatively in the media (only mentioned when there was a crime), and my white peers expressed concern when they heard I worked in these areas.

My jobs involved spending a substantial amount of time in the community, which exposed me to faces/people most of my white peers have generally not interacted with, allowing me to see them more clearly as individuals rather than members of a homogenous group. That exposure gave me insights and first-hand knowledge that directly contradicted the racist misinformation I continue to hear anobserve in public and in private. In one work setting, I was one of only two white employees. I was in the minority and privy to things I might not have heard or seen in other work settings – kind of like peeling back a curtain.

I found these experiences instructive and over time I was able to discern subtle and not-so-subtle differences, such as a clear delineation in the quality of the roads as I crossed over the Southern State Parkway from West Babylon to Wyandanch. The condition and size of the housing stock was noticeably different, I noticed more people walking or loitering on the streets, different types of businesses (lots of barber shops, ethnic eateries come to mind) and in some cases an scarcity of certain types of business (banks and supermarkets). I also noted there was a greater police presence.

While I sometimes got a funny look at a gas station or deli as if to say “what are you doing here?” I was generally treated with respect when I visited these communities and interacted with the residents. There was only one time that I felt uncomfortable — when I received an aggressive, but inarticulate comment in line from an African American man in front of me at Burger King in Hempstead. To be safe, I decided to leave and ate elsewhere. From that point on, I tended to bring lunch to work and only go outside to get some fresh air or walk around my office building on Clinton Street. It was there that I often ran into the civil rights lawyer Fred Brewington, who I recognized from his appearances on News12, and we would often exchange greetings in the lobby or elevator.

After marrying in 2001, my wife and I moved to an apartment complex in Patchogue. One of the things we both noticed and appreciated was the greater diversity amongst our neighbors; certainly, much greater than the neighborhood where we’d both grown up and the high school we’d graduated from further west in Suffolk County.

Speaking of residences, my mother was asked (told?) this by a neighbor when she was selling our childhood home after retirement: “Don’t sell to Blacks” – and this was in 2015!

To sum it up, I’ve looked back and seen Long Island remain, if not become further, segregated in the 40 plus years since I moved here. The segregation in our schools is a direct result of the policies and practices that limit where non-white residents can live. Consequently, we have a tale of two Islands; one white and mostly affluent, the other non-white and largely disadvantaged. We are all affected in negative ways by this separate, but unequal living arrangement. It’s just one part of the structural racism that persists and has become more visible in recent years.

My grandson lives nearby in Islip and often visits us, playing with the other children who live in our courtyard. One of his closest pals, an African American youngster named Xavier, often shouts to me when I come home, “Lucian’s grandpa!! Is Lucian here today?” I, for one, would like to help manifest a different, more just Long Island for future generations where such friendships and living with neighbors who reflect the diversity of Long Island is the norm rather than the exception.

These are just some of my many observations about segregation on Long Island during my lifetime. Racism may manifest in less overt ways these days (perhaps with the exception of the last two years) making it harder to readily discern, but it’s here. Being more subtle, it’s been easier for my fellow white residents to ignore, but its effects are pervasive and corrosive to the fabric of all of our lives in this region.