A year after the death at 93 of New York’s first black mayor, David Dinkins, the city elected its second black mayor, Eric Adams. As more than three decades separate their tenure, the city faces challenges in 2022 reminiscent of the Dinkins era.
Crime is on the rise, to begin with. The New York Post reports that the murder rate has increased 46% since 2016. Rape and criminal assaults have also increased. In the past two years, incidents of gun violence have more than doubled. Likewise, Dinkins’ first year in office, in 1990, set a municipal record for the number of homicides, a problem his administration was never able to control. “Crime is tearing the lives of this city apart and has completely changed ordinary life,” the head of a civilian watch group said at the time. “Worst of all, it destroys the morale of our fellow citizens.
The quality of life continued to deteriorate in other ways under Dinkins’ watch. He “took an extreme stance on homelessness,” wrote urban historian Fred Siegel. “He dismissed the evidence that drugs, alcohol and mental illness invalidated most homeless people as simply the ‘common myth’ pushed by people lacking in compassion. Dinkins was a big city progressive before it was cool.
The previous decade had seen several high-profile racial incidents that were exploited by local politicians and demagogues. A white man, Bernhard Goetz, shot three young blacks who were about to assault him in a subway train. Yusef Hawkins, a black teenager, was attacked by a mob of white youth in a predominantly Italian neighborhood of Brooklyn and shot dead. Tawana Brawley, a 15-year-old black girl, has wrongly accused four white men of kidnapping and raping her.
Dinkins has presented himself as someone who could help bridge the city’s growing racial divisions. He and his supporters viewed his election as a victory for civil rights, a blow to the black underclass. “We have taken another step forward on Freedom’s Road,” he said in his victory speech. Yet at the end of his term, polls showed most voters believed race relations had deteriorated. Along with high levels of violent crime, which had their primary impact on low-income communities, came a sharp increase in social assistance reliance and hundreds of thousands of job losses. Racial inequalities had widened by the time Dinkins left office in early 1993.
Looking back, none of this is too surprising. New York was one of the last major cities in the United States to elect a black mayor, but it had been clear for decades that greater black political influence was not a sure-fire way to tackle social inequalities and racial conflicts. After the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, civil rights leaders seriously turned to electing more black officials. By the late 1980s, cities from Chicago and Los Angeles to Cleveland and Washington had elected black mayors. Nevertheless, the poor blacks have lost ground. Detroit’s first black mayor, Coleman Young, took office in 1974 and served for 20 years. In 1987, more than a third of the city’s inhabitants were on social assistance, four times more than in 1967.
The problem is not the race of these elected officials – blacks have also lost ground under white mayors – but their politics. Typically, black rulers in big cities have been liberals, who are much better at coping with poverty than facilitating upward mobility. In addition, there are limits to what government can do to tackle inequality, as what feeds the disparities between groups today is mainly rooted in cultural differences – attitudes, habits and behaviors – which do not exist. do not lend themselves easily to political solutions.
Sadly, none of this history has stopped liberal elites from continuing to promote black elected officials as political saviors of minorities. After Mr. Adams’ victory, a New York Times commentator wrote: “The black working class of New York, which constitutes the heart of the Democratic base but has been excluded from city hall, will finally have its time. The reality is that under Dinkins’ immediate successors Rudolph Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg, life in black New York has improved dramatically. Violent crime, including murders, has plummeted, meaning tens of thousands of young men are alive today and would have died had homicide rates remained at Dinkins’ level. Educational choice has widened, allowing hundreds of thousands of low-income families to flee chronically failing schools.
These results mean a lot more to New Yorkers of all shades than the mayor’s color. So far, Mr. Adams has not focused as much as Dinkins did on portraying himself as a symbol of racial progress. Better leave that to others. The history lesson for Mr. Adams is that skill matters more than skin tone. If he remembers, he could become the first black mayor of New York to deserve re-election.
Copyright © 2022 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All rights reserved. 87990cbe856818d5eddac44c7b1cdeb8