Q&A with Elaine Gross, ERASE Racism

Elaine Gross was hired by the Long Island Community Foundation to launch the ERASE Racism Initiative in June 2001. In 2004, ERASE Racism became an independent New York State not-for-profit corporation. Ms. Gross has successfully led ERASE Racism, bringing together a cross section of Long Island leaders to discuss and formulate remedies to persistent regional inequities, resulting from imbedded institutional and structural racism in health, education and housing.

Q: How do we solve Long Island’s segregation problem at the high school level?

A: All of the work that ERASE Racism has done is really focused on what we call structural racism. It’s those structural impediments to equity. Of course, our schools are segregated because our communities are segregated. We are among the top 10 racially-segregated metro regions in the country, when you look at Nassau, Suffolk. Especially, black and white residential segregation. We have about 19 school districts that kind of mirror the regional demographics. One of the reasons why we focus on high school students, it’s because we feel like they are one of the important potential constituencies for this push for integration. We have been bringing high school students together across districts. We had a full-day event in the fall, we had 17 different high schools represented and it was very diverse in terms of racial, ethnic, religion, higher income, lower-income communities. Our focus is leadership development and we do talk about student activism. So, we’ve introduced the students to how Long Island was developed, and why it is so racially segregated. A history, by the way, that they don’t know, they’re not getting this education in their schools. So, it’s a whole new thing we’re telling them about Long Island’s history, how it was developed, the structural racism and how that becomes a pediment to integration in school, equity in education, etc. We feel … if they experience learning in an integrated environment (which is what happens in the students voices campaign activity), that helps them to be comfortable and they then start to ask, how come we aren’t in the same schools? It’s a process.

Q: Tell us about the student task force.

A: The student task force, they’re the ones that really talk about, what are our priorities, what do we want to do, that kind of thing. We certainly need to have students who can speak up on this issue, and who could be an advocate so down the road why not [have] some kind of a rally for integrated education? Why not some kind of a policy push with the regions and their individual districts? Working with the students is an important piece and also we have educators who are on our education equity working group, and we’ve developed this with those educators so that it’s not just ERASE Racism that says “we need more educators and administrators of color.”

Q: So what happens when you have more integrated schools? How do students benefit? How does the staff benefit? How does the community benefit as a whole?

A: There’s been a lot of research on this and basically the research shows that all of the students benefit, the students of color and the white students, especially as it relates to preparation for the post school world. They are better able to deal with diverse work settings. There are some very specific benefits in terms of the academic performance for African American boys in particular. It’s all good. There’s less prejudice which of course we see in our little microcosm that students can have understanding and empathy for other students when they actually see that “oh these are not are not monsters. They’re just kids like we are kids and we actually have some things in common.” We think that this is really the way to create the citizens that we need. If they were in these environments that this is really the optimal learning environment for the students.

Q: What are the white students saying?

A: Again, it’s our microcosm. The white students also think it’s a good idea. First of all, they have to decide that they wanted to come to something that was a special activity. We held a full day program on Veterans Day. Only a certain kind of student is going to go out to do anything on holiday. And then with our topic you know that they knew were going to be talking about race and racism and blah blah blah. All these certain kinds of students are going to sign up for that. So we certainly recognize that we know we have been dealing with students who have a certain curiosity at least if not a real passion for this issue. I don’t want to suggest that we’ve done some transformation of students who were racist and now they are they want to have integrated schools, that is not what we’ve been doing and that’s not what we had intended to do. I think what we have a capacity to do is to really help equip students who have some interest in this, educate them because as I said they were clearly ignorant. About. What’s structural racism was and about long island specific and how it was developed etc.

Q: What’s your vision for Long Island schools?

A: Ideally, we will have many fewer districts and those districts will be racially integrated. What are you hearing from black students who are in predominantly white schools ? So over the years I’ve heard students talk about there that they know there they have more options and more opportunities in the schools that they’re in. They have a certain awareness. But I’ve also heard the stories about this might be more from the parents. One parent described that her daughter told her that when she went first day of class and went , I don’t remember which honors class it was but she sat down and the teacher said to her “well what class are you looking for.” Assuming that she had come to the wrong class. But I don’t think that any of this has really been systematically.

Q: What prompted you to get involved?

A: I grew up in Port Washington, even though I was in the black area, I went to the high school. I went to the schools with everybody else. That’s the only way. There wasn’t a school that was segregated. There were enough of us number one for there to be a school. I was able to take advantage of all the things that were in the school. I had a very different experience in terms of what school was like on Long Island and I drank the Kool-Aid that Long Island schools are fantastic.

And so I come back here as an adult with a whole education about structural racism and suddenly it’s like something is going on here. And then when I would get some exposure to these schools, the first thing I thought was what’s going on has anybody organized these parents anywhere? The thing that we want to do with parents is to help equip them to be able to judge and to understand what is going on in your school, are your students getting what they should be getting? How does this compare to what’s going on at other schools? I want the students to be the voice of the advocate. I want the parents to be the voice for advocacy for their kids. And I want them to be saying. This is outrageous.

Q: Any last words?

A: People have told me that, they have repeated [this] myth over and over again — blacks only want to live with other blacks of late. Nobody’s being discriminated against. They self-segregated. We paid for survey researchers from Stony Brook University to do a telephone survey research in zip codes that were majority African American. And they asked the various questions, including questions about their preferences and would they do they would they prefer living in a community that’s 100 percent black. Consistently I think there was one percent that said they would prefer a community that was 100 percent black. Everybody else preferred some level of diversity. We thought we would do it on Long Island because people always say Long Island is different. So that took care of that myth.

But then the next myth was “it’s not segregation by race. It’s segregation by income.” We got John Logan, the researcher from Brown University known internationally for his segregation research. And he looked at low income, middle income and high income for all of the racial groups and he found that a low, medium, high for each of the racial groups were clustered. There wasn’t a big difference. So, it’s like if it was all about money you’d find higher income whites higher income Asians higher income Latinos higher income blacks they would be clustered. Even if it was a range they would be clustered.

So that suggests that in fact is it not true that blacks don’t want to live in a diverse environment.