Marooned on the Island

The Humdrum Racism of Long Island Culture

I worked retail in the Hamptons this summer. Every morning, I’d steer my partner’s tiny Honda through a sea of landscapers, Manhattan commuters, and Summer People for the better part of an hour. And about three days out of every five, I was greeted with the depressing sight of our resident Donald Trump Lite, standing outside the Southampton 7-Eleven with signs reading WHEN THEY JUMPED THE FENCE THEY BROKE THE LAW and DEPORT ILLEGALS—about 100 feet away from the gaggle of Latino men looking for the daily work they needed to survive.

This guy has been doing the same thing multiple days per week for over ten years. He claims he lost his job due to immigrant workers. One wonders how many job opportunities he’s lost due to the extremely public nature of his racism—not to mention how many have passed him by as he’s chanting at passersby. On the morning of one of my last days of work, I threw my cup of coffee at him, scoring a direct hit on his shoulder. I felt vindicated. For about five minutes.

You see, this guy isn’t treated with disgust or even discomfort by a very large section of Long Island’s white population. He’s a joke, a quirky local who’s just “expressing his opinions.” He’s allowed on committees and in activist organizations. He’s part of a larger narrative in this part of New York—a middle ground between upstate’s backwoods, “redneck” racism and the city’s liberal, gentrifying racism; a type of racism that’s fully acceptable, full of code words and deep-set prejudices.

Yaphank, a nearby town that’s mostly lauded for its World War I-era army history and strangely overlooked for its World War II-era Nazi history, is a prime example of this mindset. For over eighty years, the town (the site of a Nazi youth camp in the 1930s until the federal government forced its closure in 1941) has enforced bylaws refusing residency to anyone not of (white) German descent. This, for decades, was business as usual. Nothing out of the ordinary. And the only reason light is being shined on the subject now is because a German family wants to (and is unable to) sell their home.

For the fuel I need to write these screeds, I patronize the beer store in which I once heard an employee offensively imitating a black woman on the phone, because I was slightly less upset afterward than I was at the other beer store across town, where the proprietor (apropos of nothing, in the middle of small talk about debit card security) told me, “Well, those Mexican guys who come in here give me trouble with their IDs, because all of ’em look the same.”

Similarly, in my former capacity as an office assistant at a local university, I spent a good fifteen minutes answering a number of questions about student life for a prospective student’s parent, before the guy came out with, “I’m just worried about the campus being crowded. So many Asian students all over the place, it’s like Koreatown over there.” He correctly read my startled silence for what it was and responded by swearing up and down how not-racist he was until (in order to preserve my job) I grudgingly reassured his fragile white-dad self-image.

From Riverhead to Water Mill, the island is absolutely covered in indigenous stereotypes, from “Braves/Indians/Chiefs” sports teams to “respectful” statues complete with war bonnets and face paint to local business logos (tastefully emblazoned in what other color but red). This is even more painful considering that the Shinnecock and the Montaukett nations are still right here on Long Island, losing thousands of acres of their land to ritzy golf courses and being denied federal recognition, respectively.

Just last week, I went into a thrift shop (staffed by two elderly white women) and politely asked about the price of a suit jacket. Not that it matters—but I’m articulate, generally reserved in public, and make it a point to always be respectful to retail employees. Not that it matters—but I wear polos, corduroys, and fucking loafers. Not that it matters. The lady behind the counter literally shrank away from me, stammered inarticulately, and behaved as though I was sticking a gun in her face. Par for the course.

All this is to say that these experiences have become a part of my daily life. It’s at the point where racist comments have gone from shaking me to my core to annoying me for a minute or two. And I haven’t even been here for three years. Add a decade or two to that, and shift my skin a few shades lighter, and I can almost understand how Long Islanders can (consciously or not) view this stuff as a fundamental part of their lives—as a part of the local culture, even.

Outside of New York, from what I gather, the state is generally viewed as “progressive”—many people conflate the city with the state as a whole. Within New York, city-dwellers like to make cracks about upstate (“upsouth” is a common one)—cracks that are pretty much entirely deserved, considering how many Confederate flags you can see on a brief drive through, well, pick a town west of Poughkeepsie. But the insidious racism of Long Island (particularly the Hamptons and the rest of eastern LI) often goes unrecognized, lost in a sea of bro jokes and platitudes about the ultra-rich. Not that either of those categories aren’t heavily associated with racism, but that’s neither here nor there.

Last year, the KKK distributed flyers all across Hampton Bays. A few residents complained. Many just rolled their eyes. There’s one guy, Douglas Munker, who’s behind most of them (though he claims to have the support of over a hundred Klan members in the area), but, as is discussed in this Newsday article, Long Islanders tend to reject the KKK “not because its members are racists, but because they’re clumsy amateurs at racism compared to many Long Islanders.” In a place like this, we don’t need the Klan. We’re much too….refined.

Art by TN. 

Johnny Islamabad

Johnny Islamabad

Johnny Islamabad is the main editor and cofounder of Empire of Loathing. In his non-Internet life, he is a starving literature professor and alcohol enthusiast. He most often writes about the bizarre farce that is American electoral politics, which is a refreshing break from the bizarre farce that is his daily life.

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