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
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
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.