Thursday, April 2, 2009

Councilman: School Opponents Driven by Racism

By Conor Greene

Many in attendance at a City Council hearing on the proposed Maspeth high school were shocked and insulted when Councilman Charles Barron accused the plan’s opponents of trying to “justify segregation” and “keep their high school for their white children.”

The comments came Tuesday during a council sub-committee hearing on the Department of Education request to build an 1,100-seat high school at the former Restaurant Depot site at 74th Street and 57th Avenue. Many residents are against a school on that site due to congestion issues the neighborhood already faces in part due to two existing schools within three blocks.

“I was checking my calendar to see what year we are in,” said Barron, suggesting that the opposition from the residents - none of whom had testified yet - was driven by racism. “Race is an issue whether you like it or not.” He said the residents were trying to “turn back the hands of time” to the 1950s and “justify segregation.”

They “want to keep their high school for their white children,” Barron concluded. He then left the hearing before any residents testified. Neighbors of the proposed site would later tell the committee that they feel that location is inappropriate for a school, regardless of how it is zoned. The residents asked the DOE to look for alternative sites with better public transit access.

Barron expressed his opinion following a discussion between Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley and DOE officials on a range of issues, including her request that students in five local schools be given preference.

During that exchange, Micah Lasher, executive director of DOE’s Office of Public Affairs, said that it is against department policy under Mayor Bloomberg to restrict admissions to certain neighborhoods. Doing so has “historically led to a system of haves and have-nots,” he said. Agreeing to give first priority to students in District 24, followed by districts 27 and 28 was a “difficult compromise” for the DOE to make.

Many residents later said they were insulted by Barron’s comments, which were also disavowed by several of his colleagues, including Helen Sears (D-Jackson Heights), John Liu (D-Flushing) and Robert Jackson (D-Manhattan).

Anthony Nunziato, a neighborhood resident and businessman said he was “offended” by the comments. “It is a disgrace that a man of that [position] would say something like that,” he said.

Nunziato later said the residents are filing a formal complaint with City Council Speaker Christine Quinn demanding that Barron be publicly censured for his comments. “The guy is a racist. If it was a white supremacist who got up there and said that, they would have no problem throwing him out… I was never more offended in my life, and all of us felt that way.”

“Today I had to take offense to someone calling me a racist who knows nothing about my life,” said Bob Doocey of Middle Village.

Several other residents said they were insulted by Barron and invited Barron to visit their community. “ Then maybe, he can get his head out of... the 1950s,” said Manny Caruana. “This man has never been to Maspeth. Shame on you.”

Community Board 5 District Manager Gary Giordano said the problem was one of congestion and zoning, “not a racial issue.”

Sears said that she has “known Maspeth for many years” and “I don’t think I have ever known them to be racist people... We have to be careful we don’t label people because they are fighting for their community… I don’t think there’s any community in Western Queens we can call a segregated community,” Sears said.

John Liu (D-Flushing) said, “I don’t think race should be brought up here... It’s very serious.” He accused the Department of Education for subtly using race as a way to push for the school. “Let’s not inject race into this discussion. It’s the Department of Ed and the SCA that has raised that specter, and I find that despicable.”

Jackson, who is co-chair of the Council’s Black, Latino and Asian Caucus, noted that “obviously many people in the audience were offended by” Barron. “This is not the first time” the Brooklyn councilman made racially-charged accusations, said Jackson. “I respect your community and I respect your opinions,” he told the residents, many of whom boarded a bus on Grand Avenue that morning and waited hours for their three minutes to testify.

This isn’t the first time the project’s supporters have accused its opponents of acting on racist motives. At a prior hearing on the plan, Rosemary Parker said she felt like she was in an “alternate reality” after listening to the plan’s critics. “I’m really sorry I had to be here tonight to take this abuse and be in Archie Bunker’s house,” she said in February.

During Tuesday’s hearing, Woodside resident Marge Kolb, who is president of the District 24 PTA Presidents’ Council and supports the school, also suggested race was a factor and that the residents simply don’t want “outsiders” in their community. “To me, that means something and has resonance,” she said. “The fact is, I have heard people denigrating Corona.”

It also isn’t the first time Barron has made racially-charged comments that some found offensive. A former member of the Black Panther Party, Barron was elected to the City Council in 2001 and represents parts of Brooklyn including Brownsville and East Flatbush. He came under fire in 2002 after telling a crowd of several thousand at a rally calling for slavery reparations, “I want to go up to the closest white person and say, ‘You can’t understand this, it’s a black thing,’ and then slap him, just for my mental health.’”

Crowley said only, “I’m not surprised” when asked her reaction to Barron’s comments following the hearing.

Councilman Charles Barron speaks during Tuesday’s City Council hearing. Several of Barron’s colleagues look on as the councilman claims that opponents of the school plan want to keep minority students out of Maspeth. Many residents said they were offended by the remarks. The Forum Newsgroup/photo by CONOR GREENE

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