On Monday November 23rd, 2020, the former Mayor of New York City, David Dinkins, passed away at the age of 93. He was the city’s first and to this point only African American mayor. So, about that headline, if this circumstance were the case in Charlotte, Memphis, Atlanta, or my hometown of Birmingham, I would wager a guess that questions like this would be prevalent all over Al Gore’s internet. These cities listed have earned their racist associations as we have discussed on this here website many times, but they certainly don’t hold a monopoly on racism in politics.
To be fair, due to white flight as well as historically larger Black populations as a percentage in these southern cities it is less surprising that there have been multiple Black mayors of the aforementioned municipalities. However, old white yankees are rarely fair in their assessment of southern politics, so I shall reciprocate a bit.
To be unfair, New York City politics don’t seem to just have a race problem but a gender problem as well considering Charlotte and Atlanta are both currently led by Black women. A quick Google (or Bing if you are a sicko) for “Mayor of New York City + Woman” will bring you a results page of one word, fuggedaboutit.
So back to Dinkins and how he was treated by the system that is NYC politics. Dinkins assumed the mayor’s office in 1990, a full decade after Richard Arrington Jr. became Birmingham’s first Black mayor. Both men’s victories came in the wake of tragic racist violence, the murder of Yusef Hawkins by a mob of 30 white teenaged boys in Brooklyn, and the murder of Bonita Carter, a 20 year old girl who was shot in the back by a police officer with an atrocious record of complaints from within and outside of the Birmingham Police Department.
As a quick aside, it is incredibly frustrating that too often we only care about the plight of black people when someone is brutally murdered, and only for a set amount of time in that wake.
Arrington would go on to win re-election 4 times and serve as Birmingham’s mayor for 20 years from 1979 until 1999. Dinkins was given one term and narrowly defeated in 1993, by a star of 2020s Borat: Subsequent Moviefilm, Rudy Giuliani. Dinkins seemed to be in many ways a proto-Obama, non-threatening to his white constituents while also having the expectation of solving the city’s racism foisted upon his shoulders.
That expectation unfairly gifted to Mayor Dinkins is likely a contributing factor to his one term of service. In 1991, riots broke out in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn after a Hasidic taxi driver accidentally killed 7 year old Gavin Cato, the son of Guyanese immigrants. Soon after rumors and conspiracies set a tinderbox to an explosion of violence between the Black and Jewish communities of Brooklyn. Dinkins was accused by Giuliani of having an ineffective police response in the wake of the riots, and yes, time is a flat circle and whatnot.
These attacks by Giuliani likely swayed enough votes to matter in an election that was decided by fifty-thousand, and are another example of the high standard we place on Black politicians in America. This is why I framed this discussion of Dinkins’ legacy not in terms of what he accomplished, because his bar for accomplishment was always set impossibly high, but against the broader picture of Big Apple politics.
I frame it this way for all of the (white) native New Yorkers who expectantly look to me to explain why my home state does what it does. They expect me to shed light on why Roy Moore was so close to beating Doug Jones. They expect me to shed light on why Alabama overwhelmingly votes for racists, idiots, and racist idiots.
The closest thing I can get to an explanation is to turn the mirror and ask why the city that the late Mayor Dinkins beautifully describes as “… not a melting pot, but a gorgeous mosaic… of race and religious faith, of national origin and sexual orientation – of individuals whose families arrived yesterday and generations ago, coming through Ellis Island, or Kennedy Airport, or on Greyhound buses bound for the Port Authority,” would elect to oust him in favor of the Brooklyn “Bull” Connor.