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Protests over police brutality bring discussion on systemic racism to the forefront in CNY

Tom Magnarelli
WRVO News (file photo)
The killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis sparked protests over police brutality across the nation

The killing of George Floyd has put the spotlight on the issue of police brutality. But beyond that, discussions of systemic racism that have often rumbled under the radar have burst forward.  

Police have pulled Tyrell Burke over dozens of times for minor traffic violations, in New York City, South Carolina, and most recently, central New York, which he now calls home.

"I was stopped three times within 15 minutes between Fulton and Oswego," Burke said. "I did have a headlight out, but they also communicated with each other. So as each one pulled me over, they didn't need my license and registration. They knew what was going on. So why are you pulling me over?"

Credit Ellen Abbott / WRVO News
Tyrell Burke

Like many Black men, he follows what he calls "the code" when he's pulled over.

"Have short answers, be as polite as you can, and try not to have sudden movements or even emotion. I have to speak like I'm a child to an elder, because I'm afraid that if I don't, something bad may happen to me and I won't be able to return to my family."

It's a common story among Black and brown people. A Stanford University study analyzed 93 million traffic stops between 2001 and 2017 and found, on average, Black drivers are 20% more likely to get pulled over than white drivers.

It's not just men.

"I've been pulled over and had panic attacks, and I've been crying and sobbing because I'm scared. It's that fear I think that's the biggest difference between me and my white friends, it's the fear of living while being Black," said Leila Abdul-Malak, a 19-year-old Black woman who lives in Manlius.

People of color say this is only one of the unseen, unintended ways that whites interact with Blacks, that feels racist. Syracuse University African American Studies professor Howard Ruffin says racism has changed over the years.

"So we do away with the Jim Crow, the legalized stuff that's in your face, where you're saying 'no Blacks, no dogs allowed,' and you're in an area where this stuff is a lot more subtle."

So what form does this subtlety take? Ynesse Abdul-Malak, Leila's mother, describes what it's like to be Black in the mostly white Syracuse suburb of Manlius.

"I will find myself at times feel like the outsider. Parents will have events, I won't be invited or included, and people feel weird just talking to me. And the second questions is 'where am I from.' And I now they might be curious, but it's an indication that I don't belong here."

People of power aren't immune to this subtle racism. Sharon Owens is the deputy mayor of the city of Syracuse.

"People look at me like 'Why is she in that job?' You think I haven't gotten that?" Owens said. "I was placed in the job because of some kind of diversity quota. No I actually worked in this community for 30 years and earned every step I've taken."

Owens also describes feeling what's called retail racial profiling, or being followed around at a store.

"Many times I have had to make a point that I am here to buy that," she said. "Or the fifth time you asked me if I need assistance, the fifth time I tell you 'no, I don't.' I know exactly what I'm in here to do, like any other buyer."

One recent New York City survey reported 80% of African Americans experience racial stigmas and stereotypes while shopping.

And that also goes for white people who have Black children.

Credit Ellen Abbott / WRVO News
Katelyn Kriesel speaks at a rally in Manlius

Katelyn Kriesel is white. Her two daughters, with Tyrell Burke, mentioned earlier in this story, are biracial. She said she's gotten stares and questions ever since her oldest daughter was born.

"I walk by and I'll turn and they watch us walk by. 'Who are these people and how do they fit together?' That changes you," Kriesel said.

Ynesse Abdul-Malak calls these small subtle interactions 'microaggressions.'  And ultimately it changes the way you act. Much like "the code" for taking with police, there can be a "dress code" for people of color.   

"I have to find myself dress a certain way, present myself a certain way, think of the words I will use so people will think I'm non threatening," Abdul-Malak said. "You have to think of your action all the time."

Systemic racism isn't limited to personal interactions. It's embedded in areas like housing, education and business. Syracuse and central New York is the ninth most segregated community in the country, according to recent statistics.

CNY Fair Housing director Sally Santangelo said it goes back to the days of redlining, when loans were only available for Blacks in certain neighborhoods. That systemic racism has morphed into restrictive zoning regulations that put people of color, who statistically have lower incomes, at a disadvantage.

"A lot of the towns and villages have things like a minimum lot size requirement, that requires, in some towns, to have two acres of land to build a house, or a half acre for a certain size home," Santangelo said.

Then there's the nimbyism or 'not in my backyard' attitude, that blocks the kind of housing attractive to people of color. Kriesel, who is also a member of the Manlius Town Board, said racism is hidden in concerns about traffic or crime whenever multifamily or lower income housing is considered.

"Those comments are examples of biases and potentially racism," she said. "Because you are assuming someone that is a person of color or someone of a particular income threshold is more likely to commit crime."

This segregation creates inequality in schools. Statistics show New York State spends almost $10,000 more per pupil in wealthy, mostly white school districts compared to the poorest mostly Black school districts. 98% of students in suburban school districts in central New York graduate compared to 64% in the Syracuse City School District. 

The result of that, fewer job opportunities for brown and Black people and more segregation.  

"Very often, white people have very limited, honest, real, healthy relationships with Black people, said  Patrick Johnson, a Utica native who has worked most of his life on issues of racial justice. He's a community liaison in the Oneida County District Attorney's office. "So when it comes to recruiting and putting names of candidates of Black and brown people of being hired, those names are very few."

Undoing centuries of entrenched racism is not easy. But there are ways to start, according to Johnson.  And that's simply creating authentic relationships between white and people of color.

"If we're going to make progress, don't pretend that those feelings don't come up, they do," said Johnson. "I'm saying as a professional and as an African American man, and what I believe that many Black people would like to have, is honest discussions with white people, so our relationships are real, honest, healthy and meaningful."

There are also solutions when it comes to more funding for education in urban school districts.  And getting people of color more access to the better performing suburban schools.  The key there is housing. Sally Santangelo with CNY Fair Housing says communities can revamp zoning laws and create comprehensive plans to create more housing opportunities.

"Where towns and villages are more welcoming towns and villages more welcoming of affordable housing options and multi-family housing, it also means doing the type of undercover testing done in Long Island and holding real estate professionals accountable for discriminatory practices as well."

Katelyn Kreisel says the Manlius town Board will be taking that on next year.

"Once we undertake that, we will be able to be intentionally inclusive, we can say we want to see affordable housing. Housing that's affordable for retired people. I think that will allow for our community to become more equal."

One thing about the current discussions of racism, they are mostly driven by young people, like Leila Abdul-Malak.

"My generation is being raised becoming more aware of racism. They don't have the idea that once Civil Rights ended then racism was gone, because they see it more than their parents or grandparents do."

But if this is a seminal moment in America's racial history, like many believe it is, it won't be easy. Owens.

"I equate anything hard to childbirth," said Sharon Owens. "At the end of it, you have an amazing new baby. And I think out of this we will have birthed to us something we can be proud of."

Correction: An earlier version of this article misspelled Ynesse and Leila Abdul-Malak's name. We apologize for the error. 

Ellen produces news reports and features related to events that occur in the greater Syracuse area and throughout Onondaga County. Her reports are heard regularly in regional updates in Morning Edition and All Things Considered.