Publisher's Note — October 17, 2013, 1:05 pm

Racism Revisited in the New York City Mayoral Race

Why are opponents of Bill de Blasio invoking the David Dinkins era?

This column originally ran in the Providence Journal on October 17, 2013.

Over dinner this summer in a very Waspy, very white country club in Southampton, Long Island, far from the meanest streets of New York and its contentious mayoral election, I heard one of the guests say: “If Bill de Blasio wins we’ll be back to the Dinkins era.”

I knew that this interlocutor was a criminal lawyer with cop clients who was already upset about a federal judge’s ruling against the New York Police Department’s warrantless stop-and-frisk policy. But what did he mean by invoking the Dinkins era?

Well, David Dinkins, New York’s mayor from 1989 to 1993, is black — the only African-American ever to hold the position of mayor of America’s most cosmopolitan city. And, despite their relative worldliness, New York’s politicians still play the race card when it suits them. It helped Edward Koch win re-election twice to City Hall, but, more to the point, it greatly aided Republican Rudolph Giuliani’s narrow defeat of Dinkins in 1993.

Partly in response, Dinkins has recently published a memoir, A Mayor’s Life, which is a must-read for understanding the racial overtones of the contest to succeed Mayor Michael Bloomberg. With the Democrat de Blasio holding a 44 point lead over his Republican opponent, Joe Lhota, in a recent poll, and with Lhota sponsor Giuliani openly stoking white fears of black criminals on behalf of his former deputy mayor, I thought it would be a good time to interview Dinkins, now 86 and a professor at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs.

“When asked out loud why I lost,” wrote the former mayor in his memoir, “I used to say, ‘Why do you think?’  . . . Now I say, ‘Racism, plain and simple.’ ” To bring things up to date at his Columbia office, I asked Dinkins to explain statements like the one made by New York State Republican chairman Edward Cox, who said that the election of de Blasio, who worked at a low level in the Dinkins administration, would bring back “the Dinkins era of crime and grime and high welfare rolls.”

The former mayor demurred, preferring to defend his record. “ ‘Going back to the Dinkins days’ is nonsense,” he told me. “The fact is, the bad old days were the Koch days. When I became mayor, crime started to go down, certainly as early as 1991 . . . and that was our safe-streets, safe-city program, beacon schools, and all the rest of it.” All the rest of it, ironically, included “conservative” measures such as putting “6,500 more cops in uniform,” thousands of them assigned to foot patrol, as well as such “liberal” programs as tougher gun-control laws and more shelters for victims of domestic violence.

An even greater irony is that Dinkins named a fellow ex-Marine, Raymond Kelly, police commissioner in his third year as mayor. Now, as Bloomberg’s police commissioner, Kelly champions pre-emptive police tactics, including the arrest of peaceful anti-Bush protesters during the 2004 Republican convention, spying on Muslims, and stop-and-frisk, which has been indisputably, and unconstitutionally, aimed primarily at young blacks and Latinos. Yet to hear Bloomberg’s allies talk, you would think de Blasio was Dinkins in whiteface, and that Dinkins himself was a radical civil libertarian who let loose the forces of anarchy in Gotham City.

In May, for example, Bloomberg deputy Howard Wolfson attacked de Blasio’s criticism of stop-and-frisk, saying, absurdly, that “Mr. de Blasio may be nostalgic for the days when the ACLU set crime policy in this city.” More recently, Giuliani appeared with Lhota before the September primary and declared that “every one of these Democratic candidates will destroy policing as we know it, started by me and continued by Mayor Bloomberg. . . . It is not very difficult to go back to those days.”

Such hyperbole obscures not only that crime, including murders, begin dropping under Dinkins, but that he does not entirely oppose stop-and-frisk. Indeed, Dinkins, ever the cautious clubhouse politician, endorsed de Blasio’s black opponent in the primary, William Thompson, whose refusal to call for the elimination of the practice permitted de Blasio to gain minority support. Dinkins’s position is that stop-and-frisk, if deemed necessary, should never be conducted by a “rookie cop out on the beat without [the presence of] a seasoned professional,” as this would reduce the chances “for a stop-and-frisk . . . to be improperly employed.”

So, will running against the stubbornly conventional Dinkins help Lhota, against all odds, to beat de Blasio, the white liberal who is married to a black woman, and who as an adult adopted his mother’s Italian surname?

“De Blasio should have no problem” in an overwhelmingly Democratic city, Dinkins said. “However, who knows? Somebody said, ‘You think this will be Giuliani and Dinkins all over again?’ And I say if it is, I hope it’s ’89 [when he beat Giuliani by just 2 percent] and not ’93 [when he lost by the same percentage].” Remember, David Dinkins is black.

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In February, at an event at the 92nd Street Y’s Unterberg Poetry Center in New York, while sharing the stage with my fellow British writer Martin Amis and discussing the impact of screen-based reading and bidirectional digital media on the Republic of Letters, I threw this query out to an audience that I estimate was about three hundred strong: “Have any of you been reading anything by Norman Mailer in the past year?” After a while, one hand went up, then another tentatively semi-elevated. Frankly I was surprised it was that many. Of course, there are good reasons why Mailer in particular should suffer posthumous obscurity with such alacrity: his brand of male essentialist braggadocio is arguably extraneous in the age of Trump, Weinstein, and fourth-wave feminism. Moreover, Mailer’s brilliance, such as it was, seemed, even at the time he wrote, to be sparks struck by a steely intellect against the tortuous rocks of a particular age, even though he labored tirelessly to the very end, principally as the booster of his own reputation.

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If necessity is the stern but respectable mother of invention, then perhaps desperation is the derelict father of subterfuge. That was certainly the case when I moved to Seattle in 1979.

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