Giuliani’s Successes Go Beyond Policing

Never have we who write about New York politics more richly

deserved to be called “the chattering classes” than amid our cascade of

farewells and good-riddances to Rudy Giuliani. So many pre-mortems, so little

time. Too little, anyway, to note that the Mayor universally castigated for

racial insensitivity has not only saved more lives in black and Hispanic

communities than any of his post-1960’s predecessors but also facilitated more

nonwhite small-business and home ownership-achievements too prosaic for the

chattering we enjoy.

Trying earlier this year to give long-suffering New York Times readers some inkling of

how Mr. Giuliani has transformed the city against their newspaper’s dim racial

moralizing and prejudices about what helps the poor, Sunday Magazine writer James Traub at least

drew back the curtain by asking, “Isn’t preserving people’s lives, well-being

and property the most compassionate policy of all?”

This, of course, has been Mr. Giuliani’s argument for eight

years. Endlessly he has tried to impress upon journalists, activists and

philanthropists what Mr. Traub’s rhetorical question suggested: that blacks,

Hispanics and white liberal survivors of rainbow politics can gain more ground

from entrepreneurial approaches to neighborhood development (and from firmer

assaults on crime, legal color-coding, public-sector protectionism and civic

degradation) than they ever got from efforts to tackle “root causes” with

social-welfare spending and racial preferences.

“People in this city don’t need special things; they need

more of certain general things-safety, education, jobs,” I heard the new Mayor

say early in 1994, as he rebuffed Al Sharpton’s demand for a meeting about

cops’ storming of a mosque on a robbery call. “The officers who went into that

mosque didn’t ask the color or gender of the people they were trying to

protect. That’s how most New Yorkers conduct themselves, and it’s how I’ll run

this administration.”

It sounded almost otherworldly against the tortuous racial

etiquette of David Dinkins’ “gorgeous mosaic” of distinct ethnic, racial,

sexual and other groups, each with special claims on the municipal conscience

and treasury. But as housing and safety improved even in poor neighborhoods

under Mr. Giuliani, it became hard to recall, even believe, that Mr. Dinkins

had set up the Office of Euro-American Affairs to legitimize multicultural

pandering as a governing strategy.

After watching Mr. Giuliani’s colorless successes for years

with puzzlement and mounting frustration, rainbow racialists finally held a

carnival of denial following the lethal police fusillade against Amadou Diallo.

There were celebrity protests and Times

editorials heralding a “movement against police brutality.” But there was no

such movement. Even while running up to three stories a day on the case for more

than six months, The Times neglected to report that New York

cops had killed nearly twice as many people in Mr. Dinkins’ four years as in

Mr. Giuliani’s seven. (Only after I reported this in a Boston Globe column as the Diallo defendants were acquitted did Times columnist Clyde Haberman mention

it.)

No one knew this better than hard-pressed blacks and

Hispanics, as Mr. Traub discovered when he “tested out this theory” of Mr.

Giuliani’s about governing beyond race by querying passengers riding in

“‘dollar vans’ that ply the neighborhood” of Flatbush, home to many Caribbean

immigrants in Brooklyn. Most supported Mr. Giuliani’s welfare-reform and

workfare initiatives. Most praised his crackdowns on crime, saying they’re glad

that they can go out again at night and that, with homicides down 65 percent

since he took office, thousands of people (most of them young blacks and

Hispanics) who would have been murdered were alive. Many even defended the

ubiquitous “stop-and-frisk” weapons searches, demanding mainly that officers be

polite during the necessary sweeps.

Yet, indispensable though the crime drop has been, another

reason Mr. Giuliani succeeded where the rainbow had failed lay under Mr.

Traub’s and the riders’ own feet, or seats, in the local economy-the “off–Wall

Street,” small-business economy exemplified by the passenger vans. Sometimes,

big truths emerge in the humble places.

Late in 1993, as Mr. Dinkins was finishing out his term

after losing to Mr. Giuliani, Una Clarke, the City Councilwoman who represents

the Caribbean neighborhood Mr. Traub described, called me at the Daily News seeking a column defending

private passenger vans from a “midnight” Mayoral assault. As her district had

changed from white to Caribbean in the 1970’s, the Metropolitan Transportation

Authority had let bus service decline, not least because immigrants can’t vote.

Immigrant entrepreneurs like Hector Rickets, a former hospital administrator in

Brooklyn, began fielding hundreds of 14-passenger vans that, even without

public subsidies, had fares lower than buses because they had no sclerotic work

rules or bureaucracies.

New York’s public sector leapt to respond as it knows best:

Transit and city cops harassed van operators so mercilessly that one owner won

a $1 million judgment against the M.T.A. When Mayor-elect Giuliani protested

that vans had “a proven capability of responding to special markets, as well as

the potential for promoting economic opportunity in depressed neighborhoods,”

the public sector leapt again: City Council Transportation Committee chair Noah

Dear and colleague Archie Spigner, who’d been an M.T.A. bus driver, scrambled

to put on Mr. Dinkins’ desk a bill to make it even easier to harass vans by

making it harder to license, insure and route them.

Their rationale was that vans “steal” riders from buses. But

if bus service hadn’t deteriorated in the first place, the vans wouldn’t have

appeared. If they did now, the M.T.A., like the Post Office, would have to

improve to compete, benefiting all riders. But that would mean cutting work

rules and bureaucrats. No wonder the Transport Workers’ Union honored Noah Dear

at a $250-a-plate dinner the day his anti-van bill was expected to pass. (No

wonder he sponsored it.) Mr. Dinkins would sign it because in his political

imagination unions are sacred, public services better than private, and the

T.W.U.’s heavily African-American membership more deserving than Caribbean

entrepreneurs and drivers.

Breaking a public-transit monopoly might save taxpayers $300

million a year, but one couldn’t seriously expect more African-Americans to

compete as entrepreneurs, now could one? In 1990, Mr. Dinkins had ducked that

challenge for months as African-American militants in the same Flatbush

neighborhood staged a long, ugly, extortionist boycott of Korean greengrocers.

They didn’t (or couldn’t?) open their own stores; so much for their leader

Sonny Carson’s vow to “take back our neighborhood by any means necessary.” The

protesters didn’t even represent the neighborhood, although a Times editorial implied that they did.

Black and Hispanic New Yorkers have been saddled too long

with “leaders” who don’t know that even the poorest, darkest-complexioned

immigrant enclaves in any city make progress by establishing small-business

beachheads amid the larger society’s bigotry and incomprehension. They trade on

ethnic ties at first, but outgrow them as they win more capital, connections,

economic skills and political clout. So do struggles to organize new, exploited

workers-as in New York’s heavily black Health and Hospital Workers’ Union (and

its heavily Jewish garment-workers’ unions decades before that), or in today’s

heavily Hispanic “Justice for Janitors” campaign in Los Angeles.

When such efforts

succeed, they transcend race more decisively than do racially protectionist

public bureaucracies, street rhetoric and romantic reporting about them. But

you wouldn’t know that from journalists who learned their trade back when John

Lindsay elevated race claims to a level that energized-but soon palsied-the political

imaginations of mayors like David Dinkins, Detroit’s Coleman Young, Cleveland’s

Carl Stokes, Chicago’s Eugene Sawyer, Philadelphia’s Wilson Goode and

Washington’s Marion Barry.

Most of them were

replaced because their cities have changed in ways the chattering classes

missed. Metaphorically, the rainbow mayors were carried into political oblivion

in passenger vans operated by nonwhite immigrant entrepreneurs, whose

understandings of race are more fluid and ecumenical. (Fortunately, New York’s

anti-van bill didn’t reach the Mayor’s desk until Mr. Giuliani was sitting

there, and he vetoed it.) The newcomers are changing urban economies and

political cultures in ways that confound welfare-state presumptions, and Mr.

Giuliani has helped them do it to substantial effect not only in Flatbush but

also in Harlem, East New York and the Spring Creek section of Queens. Since he

has understood the importance of doing this from the beginning, it would be

nice to hear that his would-be successors do too, and nice to see it

acknowledged in the commentators’ farewells.

Terry Golway will

return to this space in several weeks. Giuliani’s Successes Go Beyond Policing