How far have we come since the Farmingville beatings?

Day 1: How far have we come? — Newsday.com

Day 1: How far have we come?

The Patchogue killing is not the first time Long Island has been rocked by racist and anti-immigrant violence. Looking back at incidents like the Farmingville beatings in 2000, what progress, if any, has been made in terms of fostering dialogue and building a more inclusive community? Have relations between different ethnic groups gotten worse? What lessons have community leaders and activists learned in trying to deal with underlying hostilities?

Answers from our panelists:

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Andrew Malekoff, Executive Director / CEO, North Shore Child and Family Guidance Center:

I am not sure about what progress has been made and in what venues beyond perfunctory efforts such as having a one-time speaker on the subject of race, ethnicity, prejudice and inter-group relations at government or school board meetings or assemblies, for example. “Hit-and-run” efforts at taking on taboo subjects, no matter how charismatic the speaker or urgent the moment, will not translate into anything sustainable unless there is leadership in top institutions or through grass roots bottom-up efforts that pushes and pulls people further along. I think that the latter has the greater chance of success as institutional racism is so insidious. There very well may be substantial efforts that I am not privy to that other readers of this forum can identify and that demonstrate progress being made in small circles. There is a difference, I think, between people who have stepped up and become organized to “fight the hate,” and who are predisposed to take on such issues and are motivated by traumatic situations like the killing of Marcelo Lucero; and people who are not so disposed or who are “sitting on the fence.” The fence-sitters are the ones that need to be brought along in the process. There is a certain segment of any community that will not be moved, but it is quite often those who are ambivalent that will respond to a nudge and a push and a hand to join an effort to change themselves (and maybe the world) and grow.

In schools and other settings there needs to be a mechanism to help students and others to develop, if not an emotional affinity with different ethnic and racial groups, a cognitive empathy and cultural sensitivity that can lead to a deeper understanding of cultural differences. This may be developed through a combination of self-awareness, elimination of stereotypes and unfounded views, and attainment of objective knowledge about and actual interaction with members of a particular cultural group. Only through proactive efforts to make this happen will it happen. Purely reactive responses, if not support by leadership that can give the effort “legs,” are unsustainable and typically emerge in flashes and then die after the politics of the moment has ebbed. Finally, it is only in small face-to-face groups that change can occur; small face-to-face diverse groups of people that are willing to confront these difficult issues and their own stereotypes and prejudices in a sustained manner. This is not easily accomplished. To the extent that that can be supported, change will occur over time.

Michael O’Neill, Sag Harbor Anti-bias Task Force:

I agree with you, Andrew, that it’s hard to know what progress is being made. We tend to recognize progress only in retrospect and not while it is being made. One point Andrew makes was the idea that one time responses probably have the slimmest chances of changing peoples beliefs & actions. It is peoples’ beliefs that are brought along that journey of change for which our nation strives, the cultural baggage we take on the path towards equality and democracy. The recent election of Obama was a remarkable milestone in the recognition that our country has changed significantly and measurably since the pitched struggle for civil rights to the sadistic lynching of James Byrd in Jasper, Texas a decade ago to the imminent ascendancy of our 44th president of the USA. It was and is no straight line of progress, but occurring in fits and starts, steps backwards and leaps forwards. However much Marcelo Lucero’s death is an anomaly, perhaps even unintended, it did occur in Suffolk County and not Niagara or Nassau County and that is not accidental, nor incidental. The conditions in Suffolk have been made favorable by the tenor & nativism of the debate, of the political discourse spearheaded by the county government.

Of New York’s 63 counties, only one has kept up a steady drumbeat of immigrant bashing, of fixing blame, resentments and hostility upon an abstract but historical nativist antecedent, that construct of opprobrium, “the illegal immigrant,” which is concretely “beaners,” Mexicans, in everyday life any Latino. This drumbeat has been led by the county executive, but it has filtered down through the legislators, the departments that administer the services and resources of the county and through many of its towns’ elected officials and their administrations’, to filter down to people throughout the county. We cannot underestimate the immense power held by the government, but there are other forces too that powerfully shape opinion: the schools, churches, the media, which also of course has no little influence on the government as well.

We saw the roles those four estates played in this racist affair. The county government acted defensively, condemning the crime, but defending their role setting policy as well parsing rhetoric to try to remove themselves from whatever the consequences of that anti-immigrant rhetoric upon the assailants. What is most apparant was how the other estates became the dominate forces shaping the story and how it is playing out in the nation, the region, as well as in the local community. As in past incidents, it is the churches people turn to, that are most trusted by people to connect them to the moral dilemmas encountered and the pity felt in human empathy that needs expression. It is the churches that provide the healing rituals that reduce feelings of anti-social revenge and bring comfort to the aggrieved, nationally and locally.

It is not government that provides the trusted information, but of course the media and it is to them we turn for both analysis, the recording of facts and the information that bears on the affair that guides us to make the necessary intelligent choices in the political realm to institutionalize change. It will take the schools to bring home the experience of this trauma, which will help our young both try to understand and to deal with the inexplicability of the evil that haunts us. It is the young that are most amenable to change.

There are now widely used programs, which are well developed and finely tuned over the decades for the schools to use that are quite familar to them. They teach tolerance and fight hate. Programs from the Southern Poverty Law Center, the AJC, among the many out there help children recognize anger and triggers of hurt and conflict, meanness, namecalling and acquiring the sensitivity and respect needed to overcome learned bias. When these programs are instituted by school districts and are implemented in the curricula throughout the school year, they are effective.

Unfortunately, it often takes a trauma for school districts to recognize their need. It will take the wisdom accumulated through the mediation of all of the community’s institutions to fashion year round “teaching moments” that will move us forward in the progressive political sense of our shared fate, and the recognition of our interdependence that sustains our very life.

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