For the sake of New York City, the tales of its first two black mayors need to have different endings.
A year after David Dinkins, New York’s first black mayor, died at 93, the city elected its second black mayor, Eric Adams. While more than three decades separate their time in office, the city faces challenges in 2022 reminiscent of the Dinkins era.
Crime is surging, for starters. The New York Post reports that the murder rate has risen by 46% since 2016. Rape and felony assault have also increased. In the past two years, incidents of gun violence have more than doubled. Similarly, Dinkins’s first year in office, 1990, set a city record for the number of homicides, a problem his administration was never able to get under control. “Crime is tearing at the vitals of this city and has completely altered ordinary life,” said the head of a civilian watchdog group at that time. “Worst of all, it’s destroying the morale of our citizens.”
The quality of life continued to deteriorate in other ways on Dinkins’s watch. He “took an extreme position on homelessness,” urban historian Fred Siegel wrote. “He dismissed the evidence that drugs, alcohol and mental illness incapacitated most of the homeless as merely the ‘prevalent myth’ pushed by people lacking compassion.” Dinkins was a big-city progressive before it was cool.
The previous decade had been marked by several high-profile racial incidents that were exploited by local politicians and demagogues. A white man, Bernhard Goetz, shot three black youths who were about to mug him on a subway car. Yusef Hawkins, a black teenager, was attacked by a mob of white youths in a predominantly Italian Brooklyn neighborhood and shot dead. Tawana Brawley, a black 15-year-old, falsely accused four white men of kidnapping and raping her.
Dinkins ran as someone who could help bridge the city’s growing racial divisions. He and his supporters viewed his election as a civil-rights victory, a blow for the black underclass. “We passed another milestone on Freedom’s Road,” he declared in his victory speech. Yet by the end of his term, polls showed most voters felt that race relations had worsened. Along with high levels of violent crime, which had their primary impact on low-income communities, came sharp rises in welfare dependency and hundreds of thousands of job losses. Racial inequality had widened by the time Dinkins left office at the start of 1993.
In hindsight, none of this is too surprising. New York was one of the last big cities in the U.S. to elect a black mayor, but it had been clear for decades that greater black political clout was no surefire way of addressing social inequality and racial strife. Following passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, civil-rights leaders turned in earnest to electing more black officials. By the end of the 1980s, cities from Chicago and Los Angeles to Cleveland and Washington had elected black mayors. Nevertheless, the black poor lost ground. Detroit’s first black mayor, Coleman Young, took office in 1974 and served for 20 years. By 1987, more than a third of the city’s residents were on welfare, which was four times as many as in 1967.
The problem isn’t the race of these elected officials—blacks have lost ground under white mayors, too—but their policies. Typically, black leaders of big cities have been liberals, who are far better at accommodating poverty than at facilitating upward mobility. Moreover, there are limits to what the government can do to address inequality, because what drives group disparities today is mostly rooted in cultural differences—attitudes, habits and behaviors—that don’t easily lend themselves to political solutions.
Unfortunately, none of this history has stopped liberal elites from continuing to promote black elected officials as political saviors for minorities. Following Mr. Adams’s victory, a New York Times commentator wrote: “Working-class Black New York, which makes up the heart of the Democratic base but has been shut out of City Hall, will finally have its moment.” The reality is that under Dinkins’s immediate successors, Rudolph Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg, life in black New York improved dramatically. Violent crime, including murder, plummeted, which means that tens of thousands of young men are alive today who would be dead if homicide rates had remained at the level under Dinkins. Educational choice expanded, allowing hundred of thousands of low-income families to flee chronically failing schools.
Those outcomes matter much more to New Yorkers of all shades than the color of the mayor. So far, Mr. Adams hasn’t focused to the extent that Dinkins did on presenting himself as a symbol of racial progress. Better to leave that to others. The history lesson for Mr. Adams is that competence matters more than skin tone. If he remembers that, he might become the first black mayor of New York who deserves to be re-elected.
This piece originally appeared at The Wall Street Journal
Photo by David Dee Delgado/Getty Images