“Go Back to the Neighborhood Where You Belong”

The viral anti–Black Lives Matter protests in Merrick, New York, stem from Long Island’s history of racist housing policy.

An aerial view of protesters marching down a large highway in Merrick, New York.
An aerial view of protesters marching on Thursday in Merrick, New York. Al Bello/Getty Images

Among the many viral videos of nationwide protests against police brutality this past week was a clip of a tense scene from Merrick, New York, a mostly white town on Long Island. On Tuesday, residents tried to block 100 Black Lives Matter protesters from marching down Merrick Road, yelling “Get them the hell out of here!,” and suggesting that they be rerouted to march through a more diverse town nearby.*

Undaunted, protesters returned on Wednesday, to scattered reports of conflict. The renewed demonstration was largely peaceful; this time, a viral video of 7-year-old protester Wynta-Amor Rogers marching and chanting dominated the coverage. Still, the incidents on Tuesday had some wondering: What is going on, out there on Long Island, given its location in a blue state and its proximity to liberal New York City? (The actor Billy Baldwin tweeted: “I grew up near #Merrick … Lots of good people there but like many other towns on Long Island … far too many ignorant, intolerant pricks.”)

I spoke with Douglas Massey, a sociologist at Princeton University who writes about residential segregation, about Long Island’s unique history, and its enduring divisions. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Rebecca Onion: What is it about Long Island’s history that has left it so segregated in 2020?

Douglas Massey: Long Island, specifically Nassau and Suffolk counties, is an entirely suburban region. Although it was given its own designation as a metropolitan area, that was a political act rather than a demographic act. But it doesn’t really have a central city, other than New York. It’s entirely suburban.

As a suburban area, it was influenced very heavily by the housing policies that prevailed in the period from 1950 to the mid-1970s. When the suburban housing boom happened, and Levittown was created, and Long Island was built up, these suburbs were deliberately racially segregated by federal, state, and local policies.

The Federal Housing Administration basically refused to grant mortgages to black borrowers to buy houses in the suburbs. The agency required inspection approval of the neighborhood as a suitable place to loan, and referred people to what are called residential security maps that coded neighborhoods according to their creditworthiness; black neighborhoods always got red [the practice known as “redlining”].

So, basically, FHA policy precluded lending in black neighborhoods and to black individuals. And this was perfectly legal until 1974. Suburban areas on Long Island were segregated by public policy well into the civil rights era, well past when the Fair Housing Act was passed in 1968.

There’s a lot of inertia built into the residential distribution on Long Island. Redlining was finally outlawed in 1977, but there was a lot of inertia, and things change very slowly. The fact that discrimination in mortgage lending and in the rental and sale of housing was outlawed didn’t mean the discrimination stopped. It more or less went underground, and became less evident, and could only be discovered by audit studies.

The most recent one was that big study that Newsday did [in 2019] of discrimination by realtors on Long Island, which found out it was going on even to this very day, at quite high levels—discriminating against blacks in particular, but as the Latino population grew, the Puerto Rican population of New York suburbanized, and new migrants from Mexico and Central America arrived, they were also subject to discrimination.

This became a real problem on Long Island because it was a job growth center, but it wasn’t providing housing opportunities for the low-wage workers that they needed to get in order to take local service jobs. So Latinos in particular were moving into suburban areas that were zoned for single-family use, and cramming into houses in suburban areas. And that’s basically because these suburbs had refused to allow the building of affordable housing, and so they were making do, adapting as best they could.

Can you talk a little bit more about the idea of inertia? I’m curious when you’re studying patterns of segregation whether that word has a specific meaning for you. Is it just, the idea that people’s minds take a long time to change?

Well, yes, people’s minds don’t change, and their behavior doesn’t change unless you make them change. When they could get away with discrimination where it was out of view, they did, and it’s only when you start enforcing fair housing law that you bring about systemic changes.

Inertia is also built into the housing stock, because once you build the place and you fill it with white people, it takes time for neighborhood turnover to occur and status quo ante to change. Looking across metropolitan areas all over the country, you find that metropolitan areas with newer housing stock—that is, housing that was built after the Fair Housing and Fair Lending acts—the more housing was built after the civil rights era, the lower the levels of segregation.

Inertia also has a legal foundation, and that is that in the postwar period, suburbs increasingly came to be covered by restrictive density zoning rules that precluded construction of multiunit housing, which is basically the cheapest way to provide housing that’s affordable to regular working people. And so that also perpetuates segregation through zoning regulations, which have been shown by research, some of which I’ve done, to be a principal cause of both racial and class segregation in the current era. And even after the civil rights era reforms, these laws are in place, and they’re only beginning to be challenged on civil rights grounds.

In New Jersey, the Supreme Court in the ’80s decided that under the state constitution, you couldn’t write zoning regulations to preclude the construction of affordable housing. So New Jersey’s kind of been leading the way and pushing forward to make affordable housing more widely available in metropolitan areas, including white and more affluent suburbs, but it’s been a tough sale to people in New York, and especially on Long Island.

Watching the viral coverage of protests and counterprotests in Merrick this week, I was interested to see how clearly it seemed the counterprotestors were willing to articulate exactly what they understood to be the geography of segregation around them. In the videos, you can hear them saying, “Go west!”

Yes. This is not a new story. When Martin Luther King first took the movement out of the South into the North, he went to Chicago and marched in a Chicago suburb, and faced all kinds of epithets, bottle-throwing, and things. … He said it was worse than anything he faced in the South. And with Trump, with the president saying openly racially discriminatory things, it’s uncorked things people weren’t going to say in public. Explicitly saying, “Go back to the neighborhood where you belong.”

Then again, I did a study using the 2010 census that looked at metropolitan areas, rather than suburbs, that linked ongoing racial prejudice to high levels of segregation. So this isn’t something unique to the Trump era. It’s been around for quite a while.

Correction, June 8, 2020: This piece originally misidentified Merrick Road as Route 27A.