OZZIE ARAUJO: So my name is Ozzie Araujo. I'm born and raised in Forest - this is, like, the Forest Hills-Rego Park border. Yeah, this was my elementary school, P.S. 175, right across the street. I was very lucky. And for some reason, I was still always late.
MARK WINSTON GRIFFITH, HOST:
So much of our storytelling up to this point has focused on a Black and white racial divide in District 28. But that's changed. In 1970, Forest Hills was 97% white. It's not like that today. Ozzie Araujo's family is part of that change.
ARAUJO: My parents are born in Goa, India, and they immigrated to America in the '70s. And, yeah, here I am.
MAX FREEDMAN, HOST:
Ozzie told me a lot of people, when they first meet him, think he's Latino because of his last name.
ARAUJO: It's Portuguese, so it's actually Araujo. So everybody's like, you have a Portuguese last name, but you're from India. But, yeah, they colonized - the Portuguese colonized India just like the Spanish colonized South America and the Caribbean.
FREEDMAN: Ozzie is in his late 30s. He oversees afterschool programs for the Queens Community House.
GRIFFITH: When diversity planning came to District 28, Ozzie was on the Diversity Working Group. He has a lot of firsthand experience going to diverse schools.
ARAUJO: Just growing up around so many different, like, communities and ethnicities, like, I thought this was what America was. I remember, you know, they'd - at P.S. 175, they - in the auditorium, we'd sing these, like, sort of American folk songs, I think Michael Jackson - we also did, like, Michael Jackson, "We Are The World" because, like, we were celebrating our diversity. What's the name of that song when it's like - and I'm so bad at singing this. I'm not going to do this because then you might put it on the podcast, and then that's going to be embarrassing. The oceans - the redwood - (singing) from the redwood forest to the (vocalizing), this land is made for you and me.
Yeah. I remember digging that.
FREEDMAN: (Singing) This land is your land. This land is my land.
ARAUJO: (Singing) This land is my land, from California to the redwood island, to the redwood forest, to the (vocalizing), this land was made for you and me.
Yeah. So we sang that. I remember singing that and, like, thinking, America is great. Like, we got - you know, we celebrated Thanksgiving with the Native Americans. I'm living in the melting pot. You know, we've got all these cultures. Everybody's treated equally, and everything's fair. And, like, you know, I remember learning all this stuff in school thinking how, like, beautiful it was. And then, you know, you kind of grow up, and you recognize things, and it's not that at all, right?
GRIFFITH: From NPR's CODE SWITCH and Brooklyn Deep, this is School Colors, a podcast about how race, class and power shape American cities and schools. I'm Mark Winston Griffith.
FREEDMAN: And I'm Max Freedman. We started off this season talking about how a diversity planning process went off the rails in School District 28, which is smack dab in the middle of Queens, the most diverse place on the planet.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: When we were told, great news. You guys are getting a diversity plan. Everyone was like, what? We're in Queens. We're the most diverse city in the world.
GRIFFITH: But diverse wasn't always the way people described Queens or District 28. Until recently, District 28 was characterized by a white north side and a Black south side. And we've seen how, for more than 100 years, conflicts around housing, schools and resources played out mostly along this Black-white divide.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: There has always been, in District 28, a clear sense of the north and the south.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: We call it the Mason-Dixon Line just for that reason. All the Black folks are here. All the white folks are there.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: We never got what we're supposed to get. We didn't have the books. We didn't have the materials. Everything we got, we had to fight like hell for.
FREEDMAN: So how did District 28 go from being defined by this racial binary to a place where people brag about how diverse it is?
GRIFFITH: In this episode, we're going to look at how immigration came to complicate the racial map of Queens.
FREEDMAN: We'll trace how the word diversity came to be used in the United States as a way to actually avoid talking about race.
GRIFFITH: And we'll do a deep dive into two immigrant communities that have settled in Queens - how they got here, what they brought with them, and what they make of their new home's old problems.
MOHAMED Q AMIN: I think my first experience of school was actually bullying.
ELENA AMINOVA: I actually felt lucky to be in a country where I didn't feel like I was bullied against because I came from a country where I felt that I was.
MANASHE KHAIMOV: Now we're coming all the way down to America. And now we have to identify by white, by Black, by person of color, anything like that. And that's just - it's an American phenomenon.
AMIN: And I'm like, no, I'm not Indian. I'm Caribbean. And she said, well, we'll check Asian. I said, no, I'm not Asian.
ARAUJO: I looked like I was Latino, right? And I think looking like that also made me a target for the NYPD. Actually, I don't think that. I know that wholeheartedly.
AMINOVA: I wanted to be in a diverse setting because this is what the world that we live in. New York City is the melting pot.
AMIN: A melting pot of homophobia and racism that's bubbling. This pot is bubbling.
GRIFFITH: Welcome back to School Colors.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LAMENT")
AVERY R YOUNG: (Singing) I would do it for myself, but I can't.
JELANI COBB: So I think that Queens is underappreciated in terms of its significance to American society.
GRIFFITH: Jelani Cobb is a staff writer for The New Yorker. He grew up in Jamaica, Queens.
COBB: Queens has a larger number of languages spoken than any other county in the United States. And to the extent that we represent a nation composed of nations, Queens represents that. You know, the immigration history of Queens mirrors, you know, the development and the diversification of the United States.
FREEDMAN: The immigration history of the U.S. is long, complicated and often ugly. The wave of immigration that Americans most often romanticize was between roughly 1880 and 1920. During that time, more than 20 million people came here, many of them from Eastern and Southern Europe, including most of my own great grandparents.
GRIFFITH: But it was at the dawn of this same era that the first law was passed to explicitly exclude one group of people simply because of where they were from - the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.
FREEDMAN: Then the door was slammed shut to almost everyone else in 1924. That's when the Johnson-Reed Act set strict national quotas. In effect, that meant 70% of all visas were reserved for immigrants from just three countries - Great Britain, Ireland and Germany. Countries in Asia and Africa were shut out entirely.
GRIFFITH: The pendulum swung back in the other direction in 1965 with the Hart-Celler Act.
COBB: You know, the significance of that act was that it allowed people from places that previously would not have been allowed to come here or would have had a very difficult time coming here - allowed those people to have free access to immigration.
FREEDMAN: In the 50 years after the Hart-Celler Act, the foreign-born population of the United States more than quadrupled. Most of these new immigrants came from Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean. When you add up all the people who have come here since 1965 plus their children and grandchildren, you get 72 million Americans.
COBB: You know, maybe it's because there's the international airport there. You know, JFK is in Queens and LaGuardia Airport is in Queens as well. But Queens was one of the first places that those communities began to take root.
GRIFFITH: After 1965, with the influx of immigrants from the nonwhite world, America increasingly no longer fit the Black-white binary. That didn't mean our racial problems were solved. Jeff Chang is a journalist and cultural critic. His most recent book is "We Gon' Be Alright: Notes On Race And Resegregation."
JEFF CHANG: It's an incredible paradox, right? On the one hand, we have a nation that's moving headlong into being a nation, literally, of minorities. And yet at the same time, when we look at the data for who's in what schools, we're confronted with the fact that we've only moved backwards since the 1980s and the 1990s.
GRIFFITH: Here's the thing - the 1965 Immigration Act was passed around the same time as a lot of other important civil rights legislation, like the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act and the Fair Housing Act. So at the same time all these new immigrants were streaming in, many Americans really wanted to believe that all these laws meant the gains of the civil rights era were complete and racism was solved. And the increasing diversity of the country, in fact, the word diversity itself, became a tool to push that narrative. That story starts in 1978 with the landmark Supreme Court decision in Bakke v. University of California Regents.
FREEDMAN: A white guy named Allan Bakke was denied entry to U.C. Davis' medical school. Instead of taking it on the chin, he decided to sue, saying the reason he didn't get in was affirmative action.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
FREEDMAN: He called it reverse discrimination.
CHANG: What he wanted to argue was that any attempts to try to undo centuries of harm done to particularly Black communities but other communities of color as well were inherently going to discriminate against white people.
FREEDMAN: This sounds familiar now, but it was a novel argument at the time.
GRIFFITH: The court was sympathetic to Bakke, but they didn't want to throw out affirmative action altogether. So they tried to split the difference. They said a university could consider race in admissions but not by itself. Race had to be considered equivalent to any number of other characteristics, such as where you grew up and your hobbies, in the pursuit of something called diversity.
CHANG: We're going to undo the original justification for affirmative action, which was to do an undo discrimination and disparate impact, and instead, what we're going to try to do is to establish a new standard of diversity.
GRIFFITH: Thurgood Marshall was the lone Black justice on the court at the time and the only dissenter in Bakke.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
THURGOOD MARSHALL: I do not believe that anyone can truly look into America's past and still find that a remedy for the effects of that past is impermissible.
GRIFFITH: Marshall's legendary record of defending Black civil rights stretched back so far that he still used the word Negro, and he saw this ruling as an affront.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
MARSHALL: The experience of Negroes in America had been different in kind, not just in degree, from any of the other ethnic groups. It is not merely the history of slavery alone but also that a whole people were marked as inferior by the law and that that mark has endured. The dream of America as the great melting pot has not been realized, for the Negro, because of his skin color, never even made it into the pot.
FREEDMAN: Despite Marshall's objections, Bakke has stood ever since as the defensible legal standard for affirmative action and other equal opportunity programs.
CHANG: In order to be able to justify these types of programs within the context of diversity, people can't even mention the word discrimination anymore. People can't even mention exclusion anymore. People have to have all kinds of other proxy factors to put into place in order to be able to achieve a, quote-unquote, "diverse" student body.
GRIFFITH: It's difficult to overstate the cultural impact of the Bakke decision. As immigration was making this country more diverse, the word diversity emerged as a convenient way for Americans to avoid talking about race.
CHANG: Diversity has become a proxy for talking openly about historic discrimination and exclusion. It's become a proxy for talking about marginalization and fairness. The main vector of the word diversity is to point people away from the real problem.
COBB: We don't say integration now. We say diversity or diversification.
GRIFFITH: Again, Jelani Cobb.
COBB: Integration is a radioactive idea - right? - you know, because of a kind of freighted history that's associated with it - that people think of undeserving Black kids - this is in most gross terms - undeserving Black kids being brought into high-achieving white schools where they will invariably tank the school's reputation or its test scores or any of the other things; people who tend to think of, you know, race as a kind of contagion and that their kids will be infected in some way. And it's also kind of associated with the ideals of the 1960s that people have moved away from.
Diversity was meant to be a more palatable idea. You know, integration, which - the opposite pole of integration is segregation. Those two things exist as - in a kind of dialectic relationship. But diversity doesn't have any of that baggage. We just say, we want to diversify something. We want there to be people from here, people from there, people from all of these different places. It's a means, I think, of avoiding the fundamental question of why our institutions and our communities and our schools and a whole lot more, unless we take steps to intervene, wind up being monochromatically or almost monochromatically white in the first place.
FREEDMAN: But the communities and schools of District 28 are not monochromatically white. And focusing only on Black and white leaves a lot of people out of this conversation.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GRIFFITH: So next up, we're going to get to know some of the immigrant groups that have arrived in Queens since 1965, who have shaped District 28. They don't necessarily relate to the American racial binary, and they bring plenty of their own shit with them - histories, attitudes, ideas and traumas that shape the U.S. as they build home here. That's after the break.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GRIFFITH: Queens is incredibly diverse. There are at least 150 languages spoken and countless communities. We just don't have enough time to talk about all of them. So we're going to profile two of these groups, groups that scramble the way we think about race and ethnicity in this country, starting in Little Guyana.
DHANPAUL NARINE: In Queens, you have the highest concentration of Guyanese outside of Guyana - the highest. So Guyana, Big Guyana, and Queens, Little Guyana.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RICHMOND HILL (LITTLE GUYANA)")
TERRY GAJRAJ: (Singing) Richmond Hill, ah, Little Guyana. Richmond Hill, ah, Little Guyana. Richmond Hill, ah, Little Guyana.
GRIFFITH: Dhanpaul Narine is from Guyana, a small country in the northeast corner of South America that's considered part of the Caribbean. When you think about English-speaking Caribbeans, you probably think about Afro Caribbeans, like myself. But Dhanpaul is Indo Caribbean, meaning he's from the Caribbean of Indian descent.
(SOUNDBITE OF TERRY GAJRAJ SONG, "RICHMOND HILL (LITTLE GUYANA)")
NARINE: Well, when I came to New York, I settled in Richmond Hill.
GRIFFITH: Richmond Hill is a part of District 28 we haven't really talked about yet. It's not exactly north side or south side. It's more like the west, divided from the rest of the district by an expressway.
NARINE: When I got to Richmond Hill in 1989, there weren't too many immigrants at the time.
GRIFFITH: When Dhanpaul arrived in Richmond Hill, the neighborhood was still mostly white, Italian and Catholic.
NARINE: There was a saying at the time, if you walked 10 blocks, you would find one immigrant. Today, if you walk one block, you'll find a hundred immigrants (laughter). So that sums up the influx of population.
GRIFFITH: Dhanpaul was instrumental in building the institutions that anchor community life.
NARINE: My name is Dhanpaul, one of the founders of the Phagwah parade, one of the founders of Ramayan in the Park. I write for the newspaper - it's called The West Indian - and a few books as well on this community. So you're talking to the right person (laughter).
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RICHMOND HILL (LITTLE GUYANA)")
GAJRAJ: (Singing) The Guyanese girl make me feel all right. Lord, have mercy (ph).
GRIFFITH: We met Dhanpaul at the Hindu temple where he's the president and his brother is the head priest. Like Dhanpaul, a majority of Indo Caribbeans are Hindu. A smaller number are Muslim, like Mohamed Q. Amin.
AMIN: My name is Mohamed Q. Amin, and I've been living in Richmond Hill, Queens, for the past 15 years. My parents and I migrated to the U.S. in 1996 on January 10.
GRIFFITH: By the time Mohamed and his family migrated to the U.S., the Guyanese community in Richmond Hill was booming. But Mohamed's family settled about 10 miles away, far from the heart of the Indo Caribbean community.
AMIN: I felt like I experience a little bit of a culture shock. We came from Guyana in shorts and T-shirts, and we came in the middle of the 1996 snowstorm in New York.
GRIFFITH: Mohamed was in middle school. Most of the other students at his new school were African American and Afro Caribbean.
AMIN: I think my first experience of school was actually bullying, kids making fun of my clothing, not having the most fashionable attire. My parents are working-class folks, and when we came to this country, we didn't even know where the malls or where the stores were. That type of bullying also translated into people making fun of my accent. And at the time, I had, like, a really heavy Guyanese Creole accent, to the point where people would, like, literally say, oh, we can't understand you; speak English. And in Guyana, I am speaking English, and I was speaking English.
GRIFFITH: The culture shock Mohamed felt wasn't just about how he was treated by other students. The school itself tried to tell him who he was in a way he didn't understand.
AMIN: You know, when I first started to go to school, I was asked, which one of these do you identify with? And I said, neither; I'm Guyanese. And I remember the administrator looked at me and says, well, I'm asking your race, not your nationality. And I said, well, I'm Indo Guyanese (laughter). And she said, well, you can't be Indo. Does that mean you're Indian? And I'm like, no, I'm not Indian; I'm Caribbean. And she said, well, we'll check Asian. I said, no, I'm not Asian. I remember my mom being there with me, and she was like, no, we're Guyanese, you know? And the woman was like, no, we'll select Asian. Like, all of a sudden, I was Asian.
GRIFFITH: He found community with other Caribbean students from Guyana, Trinidad and Jamaica. When they got to high school, a few of them ran together for student government.
AMIN: You know, we incorporated our Caribbean culture into spirit week. We talked about our history. We talked about colonization. We talked about indentureship. We talked about slavery. And these were things that we didn't learn from history classes. We didn't learn this in American history. We didn't learn this in global history.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
NARINE: Guyanese history, in fact the history of the Caribbean, is largely based on two things - slavery and indentureship.
GRIFFITH: Dhanpaul taught high school for many years, so we asked him for a short history of Guyana.
NARINE: So slaves were taken by the Europeans to colonize the plantations, to work in the sugar plantations because sugar was - as you know, it was king.
GRIFFITH: Guyanese history is my history. Although most of my family is Jamaican, my paternal grandfather was Guyanese, Afro Guyanese. I know enough about Guyana to know that there are unique race politics there, but I had never heard this story from an Indo Guyanese point of view.
NARINE: So as far as Guyana was concerned, when slavery ended in 1838, the planters, the planter class, could not bring themselves to accept the fact that slavery ended.
GRIFFITH: To save the planter class from having to pay the formerly enslaved people for their labor, the British recruited workers from India, as well as Portugal and China, to replace them as indentured servants. Each servant had to sign a contract for an initial period of five years.
NARINE: My grandfather, his mother would have signed that contract, which meant that she was going to spend five years in the colony of British Guyana, after which she was free to return to India with him. The problem was that after five years, many of these indentured servants decided to stay on. Now, if you stayed in the country, there was an incentive, which was a piece of land. So property became important to the indentured servants, and many of them did not return.
GRIFFITH: But formerly enslaved Africans were not promised any land. This is one way the British created a wedge between Afro and Indo Guyanese. Another is residential segregation.
NARINE: Now, the colonial masters, the British, were very, very smart in terms of allocating residential spaces in the country. They did not want the ex-slaves to mix too much with the indentured servants. Reason being that if we all sit down and we mix and we talk stuff together, we might have ideas of rebellion and revolution and to overthrow the system and stuff like that. So that was one of the reasons why mixing was not too much allowed. Remember; this was a highly stratified racial society at the time. Blacks, Indians, Chinese, Portuguese, whites, Amerindians - Amerindians were used by the British to hunt down slaves so that there was resentment among all the different races, couldn't get along.
GRIFFITH: Indentured servitude ended in 1917. Guyana gained independence from Britain in 1966. But in the '70s, more and more Guyanese started looking for a way out.
NARINE: A whole bunch of stuff went wrong. People felt, well, you know, it was time to leave. And it was not only Indians who were leaving; people were leaving in general. The different races were leaving the country.
GRIFFITH: Even in New York, Indio and Afro Guyanese have maintained distinct communities. Afro Guyanese have largely concentrated in Brooklyn, and Indo Guyanese, mostly made their way to Queens, to Richmond Hill and the adjacent neighborhoods of South Richmond Hill and South Ozone Park. Today, Guyanese are the second-largest immigrant group in Queens, but in some ways, they're still under the radar.
AMIN: I've been living in this country for 25 years. Guyanese, Trinidadian, Caribbean people have been living here way longer than that. And for the first time, the census will actually capture our ethnicity.
GRIFFITH: In 2020, the U.S. Census allowed you to write down your own nationality. Before 2020, you had to just check one of the boxes they offered you. Mohamed Q. Amin has never been satisfied with checking that box. He knows the consequences.
AMIN: We know our government used the census to allocate funding to immigrant communities like Richmond Hill, but what if that data doesn't show that we exist? What we're seeing now in Richmond Hill is that lack of data is actually leading to our communities being underserved.
GRIFFITH: Richmond Hill also suffers from political fragmentation, and I mean that very literally. The neighborhood is split between seven different state assembly districts, and the city council map isn't much better. So despite their numbers, they haven't been able to exercise electoral power.
AMIN: We still don't have an Indo Caribbean elected official in the entire state, not just New York City but the entire state. We still don't have any type of real measurement of what Indo Caribbean political power looks like.
GRIFFITH: Mohamed is one of four siblings. He shares a house in Richmond Hill with his sister, who's a teacher, and his dog Bam Bam (ph). Bam Bam wanted to be a part of the interview, too.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOG BARKING)
AMIN: What's the matter?
AMIN: He's like, this is happening for too long. What's going on here? Come on.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOG BARKING)
AMIN: What? Bam Bam.
GRIFFITH: Mohamed was invited to be on the District 28 diversity working group as the leader of the Caribbean Equality Project, which he co-founded to advocate for LGBTQ Caribbeans. Mohamed is queer, and so is his brother.
AMIN: I found community in Richmond Hill. I found culture in Richmond Hill. And within all of that, I also was reminded about homophobia and racism.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
AMIN: In 2013, my brother and I were attacked in Richmond Hill in a local bar as we were attending a curry duck competition that we were invited to.
GRIFFITH: They were attacked by a group of tassa drummers.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GRIFFITH: Tassa drums are played at many traditional Indo Caribbean events, like weddings, birthdays and parades.
AMIN: And these drummers actually used their drums, their instruments, as weapons against us. And my brother was left bloody on the streets of Richmond Hill by his attackers, hospitalized. And that incident forced us to reconcile with the fact that as much work that we were doing to create safe spaces, we were not safe in Richmond Hill. And it also forced us to acknowledge that this is our home, and we should be safe in our community and that more work needs to be done.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GRIFFITH: Mohamed doesn't only advocate for queer people because he understands everyone lives at the intersection of multiple identities, and that shapes how they experience the world.
AMIN: You can't just talk to the Muslim population; you also have to acknowledge that within the Muslim population, there's homophobia. When we talk about homophobia and transphobia, it's not just a white American issue or a Black American issue. It's also an immigrant issue. If we talk about immigrant issues, it's just not a Latino issue or a South Asian issue. It's also an Indo Caribbean issue.
GRIFFITH: In a way, Mohamed is speaking to the point the Supreme Court made in the Bakke case. When we talk about diversity, race is only one characteristic of many. At the same time, Mohamed is very conscious of how central anti-Black racism still remains, both in the country where he was born and his adopted home of Queens. For Mohamed, like many other Americans, the year 2020 made that especially clear.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GRIFFITH: After the police murder of George Floyd, racial justice protests spread across the United States. In Richmond Hill, businesses started to board up their storefronts to protect themselves from looting and rioting that never came. But Mohamed watched local community leaders spreading this narrative on social media.
AMIN: This is what fear-mongering looks like. We are continuing to tell Indo Guyanese people that the looters and rioters are Black people.
GRIFFITH: Mohamed and a few other local activists tried to organize a Black Lives Matter march in their neighborhood.
AMIN: We were met with so many resistance to simply host this protest in Richmond Hill.
GRIFFITH: They wanted to simply march down Liberty Avenue through the heart of Little Guyana. They were denied. And in the same location where they would have started their demonstration, a "blue lives matter" flag was raised.
AMIN: I was not surprised. I was terrified. Like, oh, my God - Richmond Hill. Oh, it was so sad. It's still so sad.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
AMIN: I view Richmond Hill as my home, as a community that has been built by immigrants. But I also view Richmond Hill as a melting pot of homophobia and racism that's bubbling. This pot is bubbling.
FREEDMAN: But not everyone looks at the melting pot of Queens and sees that it's bubbling. We visit a different immigrant enclave with its own history and baggage after the break.
KHAIMOV: Now we're standing right in the front of the Bukharian Jewish Community Center.
FREEDMAN: Manashe Khaimov leads tours of the Bukharian Jewish community in Forest Hills and Rego Park on the north side of District 28.
KHAIMOV: So this center is basically the center of all Bukharian Jews in America, in Queens and also people who come from abroad. If you come from Israel and you decide that you need somewhere and you want to go to the Bukharian Jewish Community Center, this is the center you would come.
FREEDMAN: If you've never heard of the Bukharian Jews, well, before I lived in New York, neither did I.
KHAIMOV: There are five "Stans" where the majority of Bukharian Jews come from Central Asia to New York. And we're talking about Kazakhstan, talking about Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan. Here you go. You got it. You got all five - Central Asia.
FREEDMAN: Because most outsiders don't even know Bukharians exist, they often get lumped in with Russians. But Bukharians have different traditions from Russian Jews.
KHAIMOV: So a lot of times when you talk about Jewish community, you probably predominantly will hear Ashkenazi Jews, right? And Ashkenazi Jews is a Jewish people that come from Eastern Europe, and majority of them from Hungary, from Poland, from Ukraine, Russia. And that whole group of people will identify as Ashkenazi Jews.
FREEDMAN: Hungary, Poland, Ukraine - that's me. I'm Ashkenazi. You may have also heard of Sephardic Jews, who trace their roots to Spain. Bukharian Jewish traditions are closer to Sephardic, but they are distinct. Still, Bukharians share a certain historical narrative with Jews around the world. No matter who was in charge of the "Stans" - the Persian Empire, the Russian Empire, Christians, Muslims, Soviets - there were good times and bum times.
KHAIMOV: There were times there is great and it's happening. It's like, boom, boom, boom - good things, prosper. People could do - education. You could take any positions in the government. You could do what you can, and you could do what you want. And then there was a moment of, like, a downfall - a high rate of antisemitism, lots of laws created in a country to make sure that, you know, you go downfall. And throughout history in Central Asia, that's what happened with the Jewish community.
FREEDMAN: Today there are very, very few Bukharians still living in Central Asia. The exodus started in the early '70s and accelerated after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Forest Hills became the center of Bukharian Jewish life in the United States. About 70,000 Bukharians live in Queens.
KHAIMOV: Why Queens?
FREEDMAN: Why Forest Hills?
KHAIMOV: First of all - like, you know, we're tribal people. So, you know, we are always ready to go (laughter). It's very close to the airport, actually two of them. No, but if you think about...
KHAIMOV: Boom. You just - you know, 15 minutes to the JFK, 10 minutes to LaGuardia - you know, what best can you do? Get a plane; you get out.
FREEDMAN: Manashe's making a joke about the airports, but it's not the joke you might expect. It's not, well, we, came out of the airport in Queens, and we just stayed. It's more like, we wanted to stay near the airport so we can make a fast escape the next time they come for us. Bukharian and Ashkenazi culture may be very different, but that is a joke I understand. Anyway, the more likely reason Bukharians had started to concentrate in Forest Hills is because there were already Jews here. Ashkenazi Jews had built Forest Hills into a Jewish enclave starting in the 1940s.
KHAIMOV: But then the question becomes, if there is a Forest Hills Jewish Center, how come Bukharian Jews...
KHAIMOV: ...Wouldn't to just go to the Jewish center? It already exists.
KHAIMOV: But the preservation, the idea of preserving Bukharian Jewish traditions and narrative - that's what drives the community going - because if we just join any other centers, we have to forfeit or put our identity out of the door and try to fit in and try to be part of something that already was created for us.
FREEDMAN: But there's one way that Bukharians do have to fit themselves into something that was already created.
KHAIMOV: If you ask me, I think Jewish people never identified by race, and the only time it happened, it happened here in America.
FREEDMAN: Jewishness is weird in this country in a way that a lot of non-Jews don't necessarily understand. It functions as both a religion and an ethnicity. So, for example, I'm not all that religious, but I definitely identify as Jewish. Now, there was a time not that long ago when Jews in this country were considered a race. Up until roughly the 1930s, the word race was used to refer to many different European groups - the Italian race, the Irish race, the Hebrew race. But race changed, and whiteness changed. And today most Ashkenazi Jews are white. For me, it's not that complicated. I may not feel part of the dominant white Christian culture, but in most material ways, I move through the world with the privileges of whiteness. For Bukharian Jews, it's not as straightforward. Some Bukharians look like me. They look like what we call white in this country. But many of them don't.
GRIFFITH: So if someone's to ask you, are you white, or what race are you, what would you say?
FREEDMAN: What do you put on the census, I guess?
KHAIMOV: Other. I always put other, I always put other. Because, imagine, for 2,000 years, we were always Sephardim. Now we're coming all the way the sudden to America, and now we have to identify by white, by Black, by person of color. It's like, that's just - it's an American phenomena that we unfortunately have to kind of live in and we have to kind of fall ourself in.
AMINOVA: I always identified as a Bukharian Jewish girl.
FREEDMAN: Elena Aminova is a mother of four and a member of the Community Education Council for District 28.
AMINOVA: I don't know if it was in the white category or the Caucasian or all those boxes. It was - always for me, it was other, right? It was never a box, and that was OK.
GRIFFITH: And how do you think people treated you? I mean, did you feel like you were treated as a, quote-unquote, "white person" or as an other or...
AMINOVA: I think I was treated as a person. I actually felt lucky to be in a country where I didn't feel like I was suppressed or that I was bullied against because I came from a country where I felt that I was, from Uzbekistan.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
FREEDMAN: Elena was born in the city of Samarkand and moved to the U.S. with her parents, grandparents and younger sister in 1994.
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UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing in non-English language).
AMINOVA: There was strong discrimination against Jewish people in Uzbekistan. So I felt that. We used to have problems with, you know, water and electricity. In the city, if the water was turned off in apartments, my friends in school would say, oh, the Jews drank all the water, right? So I felt that every day going to school. They would, like, point fingers and make fun of us. And that was just basically how I grew up.
FREEDMAN: The discrimination Elena faced wasn't just about kids being mean to her in school.
AMINOVA: You know, here you can practice Judaism freely. You can go to synagogue. You were not able to do that in Uzbekistan.
FREEDMAN: There were also professional limitations.
AMINOVA: Because my parents were Jewish, they were not able to get into certain high positions within, you know, the careers that they were in.
FREEDMAN: For example, her mother was the assistant principal at a music school.
AMINOVA: For her to become a principal would not be possible.
GRIFFITH: Because she was Jewish.
AMINOVA: Because she was Jewish; same thing with my father, who was an engineer. He reached a certain ceiling, and he was not able to progress further because of, you know, certain religious biases, I guess, in the country. My parents decided that, you know, they wouldn't want that for their kids. They wanted us to have the freedom of doing whatever we want to do without, you know, bribes or anything like that that were not unheard of back home.
FREEDMAN: Elena's family moved to New York when she was in the middle of eighth grade. They found an apartment across the street from Forest Hills High School.
AMINOVA: Even back then, Forest Hills High School has been extremely overcrowded. I remember us walking through the hallways like sardines; still the same today. There were Bukharian kids there, obviously, because it is a highly populated Bukharian community here. But there were, you know, Asian kids, all - Indian kids, all different types. I wouldn't say we ever even looked at kids as a race. We always looked at kids as kids. And it was always fun, actually, because diversity of thought was there, different perspectives. People loved hearing my stories growing up, I loved hearing theirs, and we were all different and it was great. And I feel like that's why Forest Hills High School is a great school because it brings a lot of kids of different races, of different religions, of different perspectives together and provides opportunities to everyone equally.
FREEDMAN: That's why she wanted her kids to go to public school in Forest Hills, even though some Bukharian families, including her own sister, send their kids to Jewish religious schools.
AMINOVA: I want them to be in a diverse classroom, and I want them to be in a diverse setting because this is what - the world that we live in. New York City is the melting pot. And that's why we came to New York.
FREEDMAN: But when District 28 was chosen to go through a diversity planning process, Elena was not enthusiastic.
AMINOVA: While I'm all for, you know, diverse schools, the part of the plan that didn't make sense to me is moving kids from neighborhood to neighborhood and making the schools diverse that way.
FREEDMAN: Once again, there is no plan.
AMINOVA: Versus why don't we invest in the schools, the broken schools that we have in certain neighborhoods, and fix them and make them better? Equity in that sense. All right, so why don't we fix all of our schools versus bringing kids to better schools in Forest Hills?
FREEDMAN: As a member of the Community Education Council, she has visited schools throughout the district. Unlike most northside parents, she has actually spoken to parents and principals on the south side.
Based on what you've seen and heard, do you believe that the district - would you call the district segregated?
AMINOVA: What do you mean?
FREEDMAN: What do you think - what do you think I mean?
AMINOVA: (Laughter) You mean the south versus the north?
FREEDMAN: Yeah, yeah, and who lives where.
AMINOVA: In a sense, I guess, maybe. It's just that, you know, probably the houses in Forest Hills are more expensive, and Rego Park a little cheaper then maybe on the Jamaica side or South Jamaica. And that might have created the segregation, per se. I don't know. He's stumbled me. So I guess there is some type of segregation. How do we address that? I'm not sure.
FREEDMAN: For Elena, however the district is going to address this problem, a diversity plan is not the way.
AMINOVA: I feel like it's creating that animosity, in a sense. I know when I went to school, that was not a topic of discussion in the 1990s. Kids don't know the difference. I mean, they're all friends with each other. Well, that's what I saw at my daughter's birthday party. She had - and I have pictures where, you know, she had friends of all different races. And I literally counted probably six races all among the 10 girls that she invited for a birthday party. As a child, they're friends with everybody. All right. So we're creating this and we're creating this right now. We're creating another segregation of vaccinated and unvaccinated. We literally - kids now know like, oh, this kid was not vaccinated, and, you know, I should stay away.
FREEDMAN: This is not where I thought this conversation was going.
AMINOVA: It's going to be another segregation. Want to quote me on that? It's going to become a thing.
FREEDMAN: To be honest, I didn't really know how to respond to that, so I tried to get us back on topic.
I mean, I'm just still thinking about what you said, about like we're the ones doing the separating. Is what - what do you mean by that? Actually, I'm not going to guess what you mean by that. What do you mean by that?
AMINOVA: I guess by talking about it so much, we're making a big deal about it. Is it a big deal?
FREEDMAN: There are a lot of people who feel this way. It's not unique to Elena or Bukharians or even white people, but I do think it's easier to claim that race is not a big deal and kids don't know the difference if you can pass for white, even if you don't identify with that word. Not everyone has that privilege. After the break.
ARAUJO: I think one thing growing up in this neighborhood, like whatever community and religion or ethnicity you belong to, people found a way to make fun of it.
FREEDMAN: This is Ozzie Araujo (ph) again. You met at the start of this episode. We sang a little of "This Land Is Your Land" together. And he told me how he personally learned to navigate the weird waters of American race while growing up in Forest Hills.
ARAUJO: There was an Indian population in Forest Hills at that time, a little further down towards Flushing Meadows. I'd tell you the name that they used to describe it, but it was like - you know, it was honestly, it was like - you know, it's not nice. It was sort of like - I don't know if that's considered racist, but like they would call it like Hindu-U or Gandhiville. At some point you go down towards like 99th Street, they used to call it Bukharlem, there's a large Bukharian community, and particularly like in that area.
FREEDMAN: Ozzie went to the very same schools in Forest Hills where Elena Aminova sent her children. Just like Elena, he really valued the diversity, especially at Halsey Junior High School.
ARAUJO: I'm so grateful that I was able to have Halsey. Halsey was like the United Nations. I mean, you literally had any race, country you could think of, any ethnicity, religion you could find in Halsey. I mean, it's just - it was such a melting pot of like different cultures.
GRIFFITH: Halsey was a big school, pulling in kids who had gone to a bunch of different elementary schools. So Halsey is where Ozzie first went to school with Black kids. In fact, that was part of the word on the street about Halsey before he got there.
ARAUJO: You know, people talked about the kids that you'd meet at Halsey from Jamaica, Queens, which is south of our district, in a way that like, you know, you needed to be scared, or like, you know, you got to be careful, you're going to get robbed. You'd hear stories like, oh, they might rob you for this. Don't wear that. You know, I remember being scared. Like, man, these kids are like either bigger, or athletic, or they could be, you know, in a gang or whatever people have told me.
FREEDMAN: But when he actually started school, Ozzie made a lot of Black friends, including one guy we ran into on the street whose nickname is Ghetto.
ARAUJO: Look, see, this guy, this is a guy you have to look out for at Halsey. This is Ghetto. What up?
GHETTO: What's up, my brother?
ARAUJO: What's up, bro?
GHETTO: How's everything?
ARAUJO: Good, good. This is Max. Max is doing - we're doing a - he's doing - he does a podcast for - it's called School Colors, about like the diversity process in the schools. But I've been - I was just telling him about my childhood and stuff because he wants to know.
GHETTO: Oh, that's cool.
GHETTO: That's super cool.
ARAUJO: So yeah, when I met him, it was just all downhill from there. I love this guy, man.
GHETTO: I love you too.
ARAUJO: Everything good?
GHETTO: Yeah, everything's good.
ARAUJO: All right.
GHETTO: How are you?
ARAUJO: Good. Just trying not to get COVID, you know. I didn't even realize, I don't got my mask on, you hugging me. Fuck. That's Ghetto. He was around growing up.
FREEDMAN: When Ozzie started making Black friends, he also started getting into Black culture.
ARAUJO: Naughty By Nature was the first cassette my brother bought. And, like, I remember popping that in and... Hip hop, hooray, oh...
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HIP HOP HOORAY")
NAUGHTY BY NATURE: (Singing) Hip hop hooray, oh... Ay, oh...
ARAUJO: And so I started dressing a little different, probably by like around sixth grade. Fitted hat, a stocking cap, baggy jeans and like a T-shirt, you know, big oversized T-shirt. I mean, I used to wear like double-XL and I was like 100 pounds soaking wet, maybe 5'5". You know, I looked Spanish, right? Like I shouldn't say Spanish, but when I was a kid, everybody said, are you Spanish, right? So now it's Latino, Latinx, but I looked like I was Latino, right? And I used to go to Corona to get my hair cut because they gave you real nice fades. And so, like, I think looking like that also made me a target for the NYPD. Actually, I don't think that. I know that wholeheartedly.
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GRIFFITH: Police hassling Black and brown kids for small infractions, or no reason at all, is a tale as old as time. But this was the late '90s, the heyday of stop and frisk in New York.
ARAUJO: The NYPD really, really, like - I mean, they treated me like, honestly, like they didn't even feel like I was a piece of shit, the way they treated me. I mean, like literally right here, me and my friend, we were walking back from Austin Street, right, Forest Hills. I was telling you how nice Continental is. We went to see a movie. We must have been 15. We were walking back, and the police - like there wasn't this, like this metal grating here. So the police car jumped the curb. This guy hopped out, and I know him, because I remember this cop is like - yeah, I felt like he always wanted to pick on us every time he saw us.
This time, he must have had a bad day or something, but he hopped out. And he was just like, what the fuck are you guys doing? Look at you. Look at you. Is you fucking high? Right? Literally pushed me up on this right here. And he grabbed me by like my shirt and just pushed me against this. And he was like in my face, he's like, look at you. Your fucking eyes are red. He's like, what are you on fucking drugs? And I was like, officer, no, we're just coming back from a movie. Like, he took down our name, like he wanted our name, info, ID. I don't know if I had ID. And then he - I remember, he patted us down, too. And then when they pat you down - like, I remember the first time that happened to me, like, that's uncomfortable. It's like you feel violated, because they'll grab your nuts. Like, they'll grab you right there, and - because that's part of the pat down process. And like, that's why I said, like they made me feel like a piece of shit. Like, I - like you feel so violated and as if you had no rights.
And I went back and told my parents what happened and, you know, my parents are Indian, so they blamed me. But they literally were like, you know, No. 1, like, you need to change the way you dress. No. 2, you shouldn't be out walking in the street. I said, out walking the street? I was coming back from the movie. I was walking Gus (ph) home. Why do you always have to walk somebody else home? Why can't - you know. And so, like, I was mad at them. I was like, you know, like, I understood America. I was just singing a song about how beautiful America was a couple of years ago, at PS 175, and, you know, I understand that I'm supposed to have certain rights, and inalienable rights.
To go back to your question, when did you start like thinking about - that New York - that America wasn't this like super fair place where equality was everywhere and this land was made for you and me? Like, that was one of the experiences that definitely resonated with me when I was like, this is bullshit. The other thing I recognize is I might be like, you know, brown, brown, but I'm not Black. And I do recognize that like, you know, I know a lot of my friends who are Black, they had even worse experiences. When you think about it, what did I have growing up versus what they didn't have in the south, like some of my peers, right? And I had a talented and gifted program. I had teachers that just didn't, like, criminalize me, that invested in me and took a liking in me, to - you know, and didn't treat me differently.
And I don't know, like, had I been Black, I think they would have treated me differently. And I think the fact that they knew I was Indian, like, they were like, oh, this is a great culture. You know, they're so studious and, you know, like, everything that a teacher might like back then when it was, you know, I had to - I sat well with my fingers folded, right. But what the fuck, like, why does that give me a right to have such a better education?
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FREEDMAN: A few months ago, I spoke on the phone to a parent from Forest Hills, an immigrant who did not want to be interviewed for the podcast. This country is so racist, she told me. I was an embassy kid. I've lived all over the world, and it's only in this country that everyone is always asking about my race. This is racist. Something is profoundly wrong.
GRIFFITH: Something is profoundly wrong. I get that some people come to Queens for a fresh start. But this place is not a blank slate, and diversity is not a magic wand.
FREEDMAN: In this episode we've met Caribbeans who are called Asian people from Asia who are called white, and a guy from India who gets mistaken for Latino when he dresses like he's Black. It's confusing.
COBB: I mean, so race is - has always been, you know, freighted socially, and it's always been a social tool.
FREEDMAN: Journalist Jelani Cobb.
COBB: And the language is contradictory because people have had different objectives at different times. And so you can't really look for consistency in talking about race. My heart goes out to young people who come here from other places and are filtered into that experience because it has to be jarring. But it also correlates to something real in American society.
The thing is, like, we can't stop using the terms because what they do is also provide us a frame of reference for experiences, so people are being totalized or they're being kind of crudely categorized, but they're also experiencing the world on the basis of those crude categories. When we look at our data on life expectancy and infant mortality, lifetime earnings, employment and unemployment, likelihood of interacting with the criminal justice system, the dynamics that take over if you do interact with the criminal justice system, all of those things up to what projected time frame you die in, and they correlate to these fictional categories of race. And so I think that we have to deal with the matter of equality before we can deal with the matter of dispensing the labels.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GRIFFITH: The District 28 diversity plan was intended to deal with the matter of equality. In the next episode, we'll tell you what happened to that plan and we'll try to figure out just how unequal the district really is.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: It was not on anyone's radar that these kids were underperforming. Like, 7% of the kids were reading on grade level - 7%. That is sick.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: That needle on that metric, where it said low school, low improvement. Like, that's like a foot on my neck.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: I often think and toss and turn and wonder why schools don't receive what they need when they're in this predicament. Yes, we receive federal funding, but is it enough?
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Our schools should not lack anything that those schools on the other side have. It has to be equal.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: I said, look, we have to fight. Why do we always have to fight. Education is free, right? Why do we have to fight for that?
GRIFFITH: Next time on School Colors.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GRIFFITH: School Colors is created, reported and written by me, Mark Winston Griffith and Max Freedman, produced by Max Freedman with Carly Rubin and Ilana Levinson. Additional reporting by Carly Rubin and Abe Levine.
FREEDMAN: Our editor is Soraya Shockley. Our project managers are Soraya Shockley and Lyndsey McKenna. Fact-checking by Carly Rubin. Engineering by James Willetts. Additional Research by Anna Kushner.
GRIFFITH: Original music by Avery R. Young and De Deacon Board. Additional music by Blue Dot Sessions.
FREEDMAN: The song "Richmond Hill (Little Guyana)" is by Terry Gajraj. Traditional Bukharian music courtesy of Smithsonian Folkways.
GRIFFITH: This episode was recorded at Seaplane Armada.
FREEDMAN: Special thanks to David Aronov, Imran Chaudhry (ph), Jay Caspian Kang, Vijay Ramjattan and Rafael Shimunov.
GRIFFITH: Thank you to Leah Donnella, Steve Drummond and the entire CODE SWITCH team. Thank you to our executive producer, Yolanda Sangweni, and NPR's senior vice president of programming, Anya Grundmann.
FREEDMAN: Season 2 of School Colors was made possible by NPR, the Spencer Fellowship in education reporting at Columbia University and by the Brooklyn Movement Center.
GRIFFITH: You can listen to the first season of School Colors at schoolcolorspodcast.com or wherever you get your podcasts.
FREEDMAN: Until next time.
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ARAUJO: He went back to the car and then came back, and he said, you know what? You guys match a description of three kids in the neighborhood that just stole a VCR. And I remember saying, like, I remember patting myself down and saying, like, what? Like, this - VCR, like, where the fuck would we have a VCR? Like, you'd see it if we were walking around with a VCR, right. And then, like, also, like, they go riding around the neighborhood looking for people that steal VCRs and, like, who the fuck steals a VCR? Like, if you break into a home, like, I don't know. Is that the thing that you're taking?
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