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Symbolic Politics


Symbolic Politics

May 5, 2002
Urban PolicyNYC

New York can no longer afford costly self-indulgence.

With New York facing a $5 billion shortfall this year and multibillion-dollar annual deficits thereafter, it’s time for the city to give up its most costly indulgence: symbolic politics.

Mayor Bloomberg offered a classic manifestation of symbolic politics in his first budget speech. The fact that New York’s government is larger per capita than the federal government, he intoned, “just shows you that the city is more compassionate.”

According to this conventional wisdom, New York’s gargantuan welfare state signifies a morally superior populace.

The City Council and the mayor added new heft to the city’s symbolic baggage last week by passing the transgendered rights bill. The bill’s main purpose is to signify support for the transgendered lifestyle, since cross-dressers and sex changers are already covered by existing civil rights laws.

One would have thought that the mayor and Council had better things to do in our budgetary crisis than double the protections for men who want to use ladies’ rest rooms. But to think so overlooks the allure of symbolic politics.

The time for such self-indulgence is over. Instead of cutting services essential to civilized urban life, such as sanitation, policing and parks, the mayor should eliminate agencies and programs whose sole purpose is to show that the city cares.

A good place to start would be the Human Rights Commission.

The commission dates to 1955, when there was little federal or state civil rights enforcement and the city was a pioneer in investigating, prosecuting and adjudicating civil rights complaints.

But now this $7.8 million agency is totally superfluous. Consider all the other agencies — federal, state and private — that perform the same functions:



  • The federal Equal Employment Opportunities Commission;

  • The Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights;

  • The Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division;

  • The Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity at the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development;

  • The Office of Civil Rights in the federal Department of Health and Human Services;

  • The state Division of Human Rights;

  • The government-funded Legal Aid Society and Legal Services Corp.;

  • The huge private anti-discrimination bar.

That last item is especially significant: Private lawyers can sue directly under the city’s very liberal civil rights law in federal or state court without going through the Human Rights Commission.

Beyond its redundant enforcement function, the commission’s activities are equally unneeded. It conducts “life management skills” presentations at local jails on topics such as “anger management” and “sexism and domestic violence,” and it played host to a 1997 conference on health care gaps for prisoners with AIDS.

These are functions of questionable utility that a gazillion other government-funded agencies and contractors already perform.

The commission also is trying to seed and nurture future civil rights litigants by holding seminars for students on the city’s human rights laws. Not that there’s much evidence of discrimination in New York, as Bloomberg himself courageously acknowledged during the mayoral campaign.

At least 80% of the cases brought before the Human Rights Commission in 2000 wound up being dismissed because the plaintiff disappeared after filing the complaint or because the allegations had no merit.

Almost all the cases that aren’t dismissed result in settlements in which the defendant makes a small, symbolic payment.

The paltry evidence of widespread bigotry troubles the left-wing Association of the Bar of the City of New York. In a report published in December, the association called on the commission to spend additional “tens of millions of dollars over four years” to beat the bushes for proof of discrimination so more defendants could be sued.

The bar association reminded us to keep this “relatively modest sum” in perspective: After all, it’s not “tens of billions,” the trade group of well-paid professionals remarked. The Bloomberg administration not only should reject the bar association’s irresponsible call for greater spending, but should abolish the commission outright.

The mayor recently proposed an additional $10.4 million in sanitation cuts that would further reduce already insufficient trash pickups in the city. He could nearly restore that cut with the $8 million the city would save by shutting down the commission.

New Yorkers would benefit far more from clean streets and a pleasant business environment than from a duplicative city agency fighting a nonexistent epidemic of discrimination.

And the city’s children would benefit far more if the bar association’s members volunteered as scoutmasters or Big Brothers instead of writing tendentious reports on phantom racism.