Long Island and Segregation

Following the conclusion of the Second World War in 1945, the United States saw a massive influx of men in uniform returning home. They benefited from numerous laws and programs meant to help these millions of service members to reintegrate into society, from the G.I. Bill that helped veterans earn an education and offered low-cost loans, while the Baby Boom and the desire for social mobility created the impetus for moving out into the suburbs. William Levitt, a businessman and real-estate developer, was the one who famously pushed for the development of the American suburban landscape. Planned towns bearing the name of Levittown sprang up around Philadelphia and New York, while in the following decades New Jersey and Puerto Rico could add William Levitt’s creations to their maps. Produced on assembly lines, the homes there were quickly produced, and in 1947 they sold for $6,990 ($79,233 in 2019). They were affordable, and due to this mass production, were available. Long Island, where the most famous Levittown was built in 1947, quickly became a symbol for suburbanization as tens of thousands of families moved east from New York to find a new home.

However, in 2019, the country is only now coming to terms with the dark underside of this time period whose ramifications can still be felt today. The Federal Housing Administration (FHA), a New Deal program established to make housing more affordable, was instrumental in laying the groundwork for the modern-day crisis of segregation on Long Island. According to historian Richard Rothstein in his book The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America, the FHA when financing the construction of these towns such as Levittown, and later on other suburbanization efforts on Long Island, they often required “racially restrictive covenants” in order to receive construction loans. Furthermore, when the FHA approved of these loans, “…its standards included a racial covenant in each house deed.” The Federal Housing Administration had in that single demand set up decades of segregation among the races in suburbia, one which especially impacted Long Island. It would not be until 1968 when these practices were officially banned by the Fair Housing Act.

One does not need to look far to see this disparity in action today. According to 2010 census statistics compiled by the University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service, Long Island from above appears to still be significantly racially divided. In a map they created using this data, it shows that white neighborhoods and towns are almost entirely white, whereas black neighborhoods and towns are entirely black, and it is the same with other minority groups as well. For example, Smithtown is predominantly white, with only a handful of areas with an Asian population, while Brentwood is almost entirely Hispanic. Wyandanch is likewise predominantly black, while the surrounding areas are predominantly white. Rothstein’s own research surprisingly found that racial segregation was not just done by organizations like the FHA or isolated to the South or a bygone era, but was done with the intent of keeping people of color and their families out of white areas. He states that “Today’s residential segregation in the North, South, Midwest, and West is not the unintended consequence of individual choices and of otherwise well-meaning law or regulation but of unhidden public policy that explicitly segregated every metropolitan area in the United States.” The reality is that despite segregation now being illegal, the ramifications of this only fifty years removed from the Fair Housing Act impacts suburbs across the country.

Most insidious of the practices used that still impacts housing for minorities today is redlining.  Today, it is not that well known about, partially because the racism and segregation that exists today is not the clear and visible segregation of Alabama during Jim Crow. According to Brick Underground’s article on the practice, redlining began in the 1930s when the FHA was in its infancy. Maps drawn by the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC) ranked areas that were “A” area as being in demand, while “D” areas were undesirable, and were not considered eligible for FHA loans. The “A” areas were demarcated on the map as green, and “D” areas were red. Although this practice was far more common in New York City, it was almost always based on a racial division. White areas were green areas, and black or minority-dominant neighborhoods were red. Because of this, minorities often would not receive housing loans because the FHA based whether or not to give a loan on what area the person lived in. This, doubled with Levittown and other up and coming Long Island towns officially or unofficially preventing people of color from buying homes created a situation where predominantly white people were able to move east.

All of these factors, from the aforementioned redlining and the contracts explicitly banning people of color from owning homes that were only limited in 1968, all the way to the FHA’s longstanding inability to provide an equal opportunity to own a home has created this new crisis of segregation. Long Island, like countless other suburbs and the country as a whole, is diversifying. With new immigrant groups arriving every year from all parts of the world and adding to the unique and complex culture of the United States, suburbs are visibly changing. While diversity on Long Island has increased significantly as well, with the amount of white students on Long Island school moving from 70% in 2003-2004 to 55% in 2015-2016 and continuing to drop, and with the student population of people of color rising from 30% to 45% during that same time period and continuing to rise, one would assume that this diversity is positively impacting Long Island. However, much of this increase in the population is coming in areas that are already majority-minority. As diversity increases on Long Island, the level of segregation rises with it.

This is not a deliberate choice by people of color to live among other people of color, as is often stated, but is instead forced upon them as access to better school districts are diminished due to these old practices. Only 21% of public school students on Long Island in 2016 were considered to have attended a “diverse” school district, or having a mix of students proportional to the population of the area, up from 18% in 2004. The remainder of students on Long Island fall into one of two extremes. On a smaller level, 24% of students in 2016 attended schools that are majority-minority, up from 14% in 2004. However, 43% of Long Island students attended in 2016 a school that was massively majority white. Although this is down from 66% in 2004, this shows that all of these policies that impacted American housing and race from the 1930s up to the 1960s still impact Long Island today. To put this statistic in terms of school districts rather than the amount of public school students, some five school districts in 2004 were considered to be “intensely segregated”, and this has risen up to eleven in 2016, all out of one hundred and twenty-five. From 2003-2004, 5% of Long Island students attended these districts. That number has likewise risen to 15% from 2015-2016, and is still rising. Segregation, a societal ill that we once thought was defeated in the 1960s, still plagues suburbia and urban areas of our country, Long Island the largest offender.

As Long Island continues to diversify, with its younger post-Millennial population likely to be majority-minority, this issue will not be going away in Suffolk County or Nassau County. In recent years this issue has come to the forefront from sources such as Newsday and Long Island Press, among others, but any serious solution to resolve segregation on Long Island will be difficult. A report called “Invisible Walls” that tackles Nassau County’s segregation issues in terms of neighborhoods, towns, and school districts does provide numerous proposals to ameliorate this crisis. Among their solutions is to better enforce the Fair Housing Act, keeping and maintaining affordable housing and increasing resources to residents within them, and promoting zoning changes to allow multifamily housing. Another issue that needs to be dealt with are real estate companies and landlords directing people of color away from majority-white areas, an issue that has existed on Long Island and in other parts of the country for generations. In one study from 2012, 58% of black respondents reported that real estate agents would steer black families away from white neighborhoods, a byproduct of the “white flight” that saw white families leaving majority-minority neighborhoods in New York City for the suburbs during the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. These actions could be stopped with fair housing laws being enforced more, or new laws being created to specifically tackle the issue.

Although segregation on Long Island is an issue that appears to be growing worse, there is hope for the future. With the younger generation of students coming up through public schools being majority-minority, they will have a voice in the public forum to discuss more earnestly this issue. In addition to that, the unknown crisis of segregation is now becoming more well known, and it will enable the public to push for reforms to ensure that there is equal opportunity for housing and education on Long Island. Ever since Long Island began the process of suburbanization in 1947 in the years following the Second World War, we had as a society assumed that segregation as an entity existed only in the Deep South under Jim Crow, and that it had disappeared after the Civil Rights Movement, and that any segregation in the North, Midwest, or West had ended before that. Instead, it is still alive and well in some parts of the country, with the institution surviving well into the twenty-first century that unknowingly had impacted countless amounts of people of color and their families.


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About Me

Nicholas Cipollo is a historian and political activist from Long Island, New York, who has studied American history. He earned his MA in History from Long Island University and has a focus on the American homefront during the Second World War.


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