Institutional Racism Series: How it Affected Where I Went to School

I went to a great elementary school from 5th to 8th grade, a high school I loved, and a great college. While I sometimes had small complaints, such as having too much homework or dealing with the stress of end-of-year exams, I was extremely lucky to get the education I received.

However, for several months in 2004, the educational system in New York viewed my family as a family of color (even though we’re white), and the results for a time cast uncertainty over where my younger brother would go to kindergarten.

This uncertainty was the result of institutional racism, or racism that is practiced and sometimes even normalized by social, economic, governmental, and other institutions.

The beginning of this story was during the 2003-04 school year, when my family was trying to get my younger brother into the kindergarten program at the public magnet school I went to at the time (which drew students from districts throughout New York City’s borough of Queens). What happened was that the school changed its “sibling policy”—the school previously had automatically admitted siblings of students already attending the school, but the policy changed so that siblings of students were limited to being somewhere between 10% to 20% of new student admissions.

The justification for this policy was to diversify the school—administrators viewed the school as drawing “too many” students from certain districts throughout Queens and “too few” students from other districts; the “too many” were usually from districts that predominantly had students of color, while the “too few” were usually from districts that predominantly had white students. In order to diversify the school, the sibling policy was changed so that the school didn’t get many more kids from districts drawing “too many” kids (mostly districts of color, as I said earlier). Indeed, as someone at the New York City Department of Education told my parents, administrators wanted more kids from places like Bayside and Douglaston (neighborhoods in Queens that were extremely white). In other words, they wanted more white kids at the school and fewer people of color.

At this point, you’re probably reading this and saying the following: “Now, wait a minute, Brendan…you’re white! You’re not a person of color! So what do you or your family have to do with all this commotion?”

Where we came into the commotion was that the school system viewed my entire family, including my brother, as people of color. Since I lived in a Queens neighborhood dominated by people of color, the system viewed my brother as a person of color and therefore as a person who would not achieve the goal of giving my school a more “diverse” student body (more white people). Basically, the educational institution in New York viewed my family as people of color for several months in 2004, and as a result my brother couldn’t get into the kindergarten program we wanted to get him into. My parents said nothing to argue with this misperception because they didn’t want to use our race to give my brother an advantage on the sole basis of the color of his skin.

Then things changed.… Once the educational powers that be saw me mark myself as “white” on a standardized test, they realized that my brother was probably also white and they suddenly offered him a seat at the school. It was too late, though, because my brother started kindergarten at a Catholic school he loved, and I transferred to that school.

The story ended on a positive note for my entire family because we had the money to pay for Catholic elementary school for my brother and me and avoid the public school system entirely after transferring.

However, as I’ve shared this particular story in talks with friends, I have found out about people who had similar issues in their own school systems, but were not so lucky because they were people of color who came from families without many economic resources. Indeed, institutional racism in education prevents some great kids from having the educational opportunities they deserve.


Note: If you missed my previous two posts in my series on institutional racism, please refer to my introductory post for the series and the post on how institutional racism affected where I (and others) live.

Earth Day 2018: A Call to Action

Next Sunday is Earth Day. So in advance, I wish everyone a happy Earth Day!

However, I don’t feel that it’s enough to just wish ourselves and others a good Earth Day. We need to take action too.

The action I propose for this year is that all of us think about the ways in which we use too much plastic and don’t put plastic where we should.[1]

Indeed, when we go to fast food restaurants, we’re given plastic tops for our drinks and straws made of plastic. We go to grocery stores and buy plastic water bottles. We throw our plastics away on the street or in the regular trash, often because that is the most convenient and expedient thing to do. We have plastic bags at grocery stores, and then throw them away in the regular trash once we use them for our one purpose (carrying groceries). So much of our food uses plastic wrapping, and we use plastic bags to help seal and protect food.

Granted, some of the onus is on companies and the government. Companies that use plastic in its products can have a hand too in at least making sure that their products are recyclable, so that the plastic we use causes as little harm to the environment as possible. Government can also have refuse-disposal cans not only for trash, but for paper and plastic as well.[2]

But some of the responsibility is in the hands of us as individuals. I don’t pretend to be holier-than-thou, as I have used and continue to use more plastic than I’d like. However, just because I struggle with some or all of these things doesn’t mean that I (and others) shouldn’t try to do better. We should all try to do better, because I highly doubt that many of us are as good as we could be. We can at least cut plastic out of our lives when plastic is not necessary; for example, when we’re at sit-down restaurants, we don’t need straws and can politely ask not to be given straws. We can also use tap water (with maybe a filter) instead of plastic water bottles. And, if you are a decision-maker in a company or in government, you can advocate for measures that could increase the recycling of plastic or cut down on plastic usage.

I, for one, commit to trying to be better about refusing to use plastic straws, as well as recycling my plastic when I am out in public. I hope that others use the upcoming Earth Day to make a commitment to cut down on plastic usage and recycle the plastic we use.


[1] This is in line with the Earth Day Network’s focus on plastic this year.

[2] In every municipality I’ve been in, including New York City, they make the baffling decision not to do this everywhere.

Why We Should Give Tipped Workers Good Tips

Every so often, a family member (usually my mom or me) is out with a friend, and the family member argues with the friend about how much of a tip to give when we’re at a restaurant. My mom and I argue for a high tip, while our friends sometimes argue for a significantly lower tip or no tip at all, regardless of the quality of service.

After seeing what minimum wages are for tipped employees in every state, I feel both vindicated and saddened. I feel vindicated that my stance on this topic is such that the higher tips mean higher wages for workers, but also saddened that these workers earn poor wages without tips.

Actually, the term “poor wages” would be a disgraceful understatement of how some tipped workers are paid before tips. Given that numerous states have a minimum wage for tipped workers at an utterly shameful $2.13 an hour, it’s the tips of consumers that could have a major impact on the economic well-being of people. So for consumers in Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, and South Carolina, you all had better give generous tips if you feel that $2.13 is too low of a wage for people to earn.

While I just directed my last sentence at the consumers of six states where tipped workers only earn $2.13 an hour before tips, consumers from the other U.S. states and territories aren’t off the hook. Not by any stretch of the imagination.

I say this because many tipped workers earn below a living wage. The MIT Living Wage Calculator says that the living wage in the United States is $15.12 per hour for a family of four.[1] Waiters and waitresses (a form of tipped work) could earn a wage around or above the 75th percentile without having a living wage (national living wage is $15.12 per hour while the 75th percentile pay for a waiter/waitress is $13.30 per hour).[2] If we want our tipped workers to earn living wages, we need to give them generous tips.

When I bring up these points, some people say that it’s not fair for us, the consumers, to compensate for the fact that tipped workers are given poor wages. While I agree that it’s not fair, the injustice of giving tipped workers a little extra compensation pales in comparison to the injustice that would happen if we all gave low tips, or no tips at all. Even if certain employers don’t pay the kinds of wages they should, it doesn’t excuse us from paying the kinds of tips we should. The ultimate injustice with tipped workers is that the people who serve us would earn so little money that they couldn’t serve themselves and their families.

It’s our choice. Do we want humane and living wages for our tipped workers? If so, it’s time for us, the consumers, to step up our games. And yes, that means I’m going to continue paying my 20%+ tips.


[1] I should note that this is the national average. The living wage varies widely between states (and even municipalities within states) depending on factors such as cost-of-living. For example, the living wage in New York City for one adult and one child is $30.86 per hour while the living wage for two adults and two children in Boise, Idaho is $15.68 per hour. Source: http://livingwage.mit.edu/articles/19-new-data-calculating-the-living-wage-for-u-s-states-counties-and-metro-areas

[2] Source: https://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes353031.htm

Some Subtle Ways that People with Mobility Issues Aren’t Accommodated

A few days ago, I was hobbling along with a hurt ankle. I am now 100%, but my ankle was really hurting and limiting my mobility for a few days.

I am not going to use today’s post to talk about my hurt ankle, but I will use my experience with it to hopefully expose readers to a some subtle ways that people with mobility issues aren’t accommodated[1]:

Our Own Behavior

During my time with a bum ankle, there has been many a time when people have tried to push through me or push past me without the courtesy of an “excuse me” while trying to get from point A to point B.

Often, we are so obsessed with getting from point A to point B in a timely manner that I fear we aren’t conscious of some of these behaviors. In the process, we push around people, shove people, and honk at people on the road who are walking too slowly for our liking but who really aren’t capable of moving any more quickly than they are. I know this because, regrettably, there’ve been times when I or friends I’ve been with have been that jerk who gets tries to rush someone with mobility issues without even a simple “excuse me” or an “I’m sorry for bumping into you.”

Now the tables have been turned on me. Now it is others who weren’t treating slow and mobility-limited Brendan with courtesy. The tables may be turned on others of us one day, and I hope we can show respect to people with mobility issues before we become the ones with such challenges.

Some Escalators Move Too Quickly

I work near a subway stop with escalators aplenty. This seemed great to me…until I realized that the escalators move so quickly that I would need to push myself to get on without tripping and falling.

So I guess I should’ve been on the elevator instead, since this subway stop also has elevators. But in cases where the only access for people with limited mobility is an escalator, a quick-moving one is a real problem. I’m just glad that I haven’t taken a tumble yet while trying to get on or off one of these high-speed escalators.

Crosswalk Signals Are Also Too Quick Sometimes

There have been a few occasions before when even able-bodied Brendan struggled to get from one part of an intersection to the other in the time between when the light changed to “walk” and when it changed back to “don’t walk.” If I had a hurt ankle though…forget about it.

The solution here is obvious: make sure the crosswalk signals leave enough time for people to cross the street easily. And yet, that’s not done!

Elevators Are Sometimes in Areas That Make People Feel Unsafe

Speaking of subways, I get on a subway stop that has elevator access. However, this elevator is over by what is, without a doubt, the most isolated section of the subway station. It’s so isolated that even I, a person who had years of karate training, wouldn’t feel safe, particularly at night.

I guess what I’m trying to say here is that, if we have accommodations for people with mobility issues in places where people feel unsafe, it defeats the purpose of the elevator access.


Of course, there may be other ways that people with mobility limitations are excluded. However, I am going off the knowledge from having a few days with a bad ankle, so I may have forgotten other key points. If there are other things I should’ve included, please comment below!

On the other hand, if you weren’t aware of these things before, I hope you are aware now!

[1] To me, any accommodation issue that might not be noticed easily by able-bodied people fits into the category of “subtle.” I acknowledge that what may be subtle to me might be painfully clear to even some other able-bodied people.

Institutional Racism Series: How it Affected Where I Live

All things considered, I am tremendously blessed to live where I do. While I have some small complaints, such as occasional noise issues or the yard being too small, I also have great neighbors, a variety of transit options, restaurants I enjoy, and a relatively safe neighborhood. Needless to say, when I talk about how institutional racism has affected where I live, I am discussing this from a position of privilege.

Indeed, institutional racism, which I defined in a previous post as racism that is practiced and sometimes even normalized by social, economic, governmental, and other institutions, helped my family afford to live where we ended up, and also resulted in my family living where we did (instead of somewhere else).

To understand how institutional racism helped my family afford to live in our current house, I should start by going back in time, not to 1999 (the year my family bought our current house), but to prior decades….

Back in the 1970s, my neighborhood was about as white as you can get, and in fact my neighborhood was the epicenter for the Italian mafia. However, people of color started to move into my neighborhood during the 1970s, and that movement accelerated during the 1980s and 1990s. By the time my family was looking for homes in my current neighborhood in 1999, it was a heavily West Indian neighborhood and most whites had fled the neighborhood. This was one example of white flight, or whites fleeing their neighborhoods to escape an influx of people of color moving in.

White flight usually depresses property values in the affected neighborhoods;[1] declining property values as a result of white flight is a form of institutional racism. In fact, white flight depressed property values in my current neighborhood so much that it became an affordable neighborhood for my family! In other words, institutional racism meant that my family could afford to live where we currently live.

However, white flight was not the only thing that had an impact on where my family ended up. Another factor was a facet of institutional racism in real estate—the fact that, at least at the time, realtors tended to mostly show us and other whites houses which were surrounded by white neighbors (which in turn would continue a form of racial segregation). This was the case even though my family made it painfully clear that we loved the West Indian culture in our current neighborhood (a love of culture that goes back to when my dad did graduate school research in Trinidad). As a result we ended up in what was, at the time, one of the small white enclaves of what was otherwise a heavily West Indian neighborhood. My family ended up where we live because of institutional racism.

In the end, though, things worked out for the better, in my family’s case. While my neighborhood is by no means perfect, I love the neighborhood in which I live. Indeed, institutional racism affected where I live, and in my case, it has affected where I live for the better. With housing, I benefited from institutional racism. However, many people are not nearly as fortunate as I have been.

[1] There are a variety of opinions as to what causes this to happen. A Washington Post article from last year cited a report from Brandeis University saying that the issue is white buyers steering away from neighborhoods with any black population, while sociologist David R. Harris (then at the University of Michigan, now president of Union College) says that sometimes race affects property values while at other times it is socioeconomic status that affects the values.