L.I. must keep up with a sea change in its demographics

By Lawrence Levy

These are not my parent’s suburbs, not Long Island or many other kindred enclaves beyond the city lines.

I’m not the only academic or journalist to say that of the enormous influx of Blacks, Latinos and Asians into suburban communities. But, frankly, the phrase may need an update: The pace of change here is so pronounced that — demographically, environmentally and other “lys” — it’s not even my 30-something children’s suburbs.

Lawrence Levy, executive dean of the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University

If Long Island has been (somewhat dubiously) called America’s First Suburb, it is (undoubtedly) America’s Changing Suburb. Like many suburban regions across the country that experienced explosive growth after World War II, Long Island was overwhelmingly white for several decades with pockets of African-Americans who often lived, as Bruce Springsteen sang, “in the darkness on the edge of town.”

In this case, from the days of whites-only racial covenants in 1940s and ’50s Levittown, it was the darkness of segregation that separated people of color, who were often poor, from whiter, more prosperous places. In some respects, not much has changed.

Nowadays, a wave of newcomers from Asia, Africa and South and Central America literally has changed the face of Long Island and other suburban counties in ways that have shaken political, economic and social institutions. Many of our new residents have done well, but others have struggled. In particular, the relatively recent suburbanization of poverty, coupled with the continuation of segregation in housing, education and other aspects of life, has catalyzed an increase in poor Black and Latino communities with attendant problems in employment, health care and incarceration.

As the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra has learned in its research, teachers of color have such a hard time finding employment on Long Island that 61 percent of the public schools here don’t have a single Black teacher. And in a region where 45 percent of the students are non-white, only 8 percent of the teachers are Black, Latino and Asian. We’ve learned that homeowners of color have a harder time obtaining mortgages than whites, even with similar financial profiles and similarly priced homes. We’ve seen diverse businesses have a difficult time accessing capital and networks in more lucrative markets, including winning contracts from the government to which they pay taxes — just like the white-owned ones that receive them. And we are working to remediate this disparity.

Meanwhile, the coronavirus pandemic punished all Long Island’s communities, but none more so than diverse communities. Numerous studies, including several surveys conducted pro bono by Hofstra University for Nassau and Suffolk County governments, suggested that Minority Business Enterprises saw business closures and revenue declines far greater than those in wealthier, less diverse areas. Rates of infection and death were far higher. The disparities, long apparent those who bothered to look, were devastating.

Tough stuff. And it would be easy for many of us to ignore or avoid the challenge. But refusing to take steps to help these communities realize their full potential — sorry, but how to do that is beyond the scope of this column — would be a mistake of existential dimension.

If we don’t find a way to welcome all the immigrants and other newcomers of color — if we continue to perpetuate discriminatory practices and policies that have plagued us for generations — Long Island not only will be an ugly, unjust place to live. That would be (and already is) bad enough. But without the new diversity of ideas, investments, energy and commitment — without their aspiration and perspiration — we easily could find ourselves becoming an economic backwater.

Think about it: One of the reasons job-generating businesses put up with Long Island’s high costs is the deep pool of well-educated employees. Many companies that have moved to other, less expensive states have returned because they can’t find enough people to do their work. But if Long Island continues to educate more and more students in the poorest and poorest performing schools — which we are — then how will we meet the demand for qualified employees? We won’t. And the jobs, as well as tax revenues for everyone’s schools, will melt away.

It’s about doing the right and smart thing.

As I’ve said at the start of every Hofstra Celebration of Suburban Diversity (and again will say on Dec. 6 at the 13th annual), “Diversity is the key to our social and economic survival.” It’s an event that brings hundreds of people together each year to celebrate the strentgth in our differences and raise funds for diversity-related scholarships, internships, research and community engagement. That is, it goes toward finding ways to confront the challenges of change — of creating an “equity economy” — that will pay in greater success for everyone.

Lawrence Levy is executive dean of Hofstra University’s National Center for Suburban Studies.

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