Mayor David Dinkins’ Fight to Undo New York City’s Race War

Remembering New York’s first Black mayor, who steered the city through racial unrest and the late crack era

Stuck between the bombastic personalities of Edward Koch and Rudy Giuliani, David Dinkins’ one term as Mayor of New York City sometimes gets lost. But the 1989 election of Dinkins, who died this week at age 93, as the Big Apple’s first (and so far only) non-white Mayor was both the culmination of and the beginning of two very significant threads in the city’s history.

The soft spoken, almost grandfatherly politician (think Morgan Freeman in one of his many mentor movie roles), born in New Jersey and a product of Howard University, was a member of a group of Harlem-based Black power brokers known as “the gang of four” — longtime Manhattan borough President and businessman Percy Sutton, Representative Charles Rangel, who succeeded Adam Clayton Powell as Harlem’s voice in Congress, and Basil Patterson, who would hold myriad jobs in NY politics and whose son David would one day become the state’s first Black governor. Together they held sway over black political power in New York for decades, working for civil rights and Black progress while building a network of patronage jobs for those who kissed the ring. In a city where your hood, race, and ethnicity defined your political reach, these four men, and their many associates, decided who got put on and who didn’t among the African American community.

Dinkins was the least charismatic and overtly less ambitious member of this posse — his chief goal for many years was becoming Manhattan borough President, a position Black men like Julian Jack and Sutton had held before him. But what really united these men (and their group was very insular and male centered) was a collective desire to elect a Black Mayor in New York. While Chicago, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Detroit, and other American cities had seen Black municipal leadership, cracking that glass ceiling in the city had frustrated them. Sutton had made a failed attempt in the late ’70s before focusing on building a national radio empire.

Dinkins, who had run for Manhattan borough President twice before winning in 1985, went up against Koch in the 1989 Democratic primary. This was the year of Do the Right Thing, and New York felt ready to burst. A series of racially charged incidents had peaked that year with the two tragedies: the murder of Yusef Hawkins in a predominantly Italian Brooklyn neighborhood, and the rape of a jogger in Central Park that resulted in five Black teens being falsely accused. Real estate developer Donald Trump placed ads in the local newspapers calling for the death penalty for the “Central Park Five,” while Koch tried to use to motivate white voters during the primary as he sought a fourth term in office. Tired of Koch’s abrasive style and looking to restore calm, Dinkins ran on a message of unity and racial harmony, arguing that the city was “a gorgeous mosaic.” A Tribe Called Quest’s Phife Dawg threw in a co-sign on the group’s track “Can I Kick It?”: “Mr. Dinkins, would you please be my mayor?”

The courtly candidate beat Koch — who had gotten 78% of the vote in his previous term — by 100,000 in the Democratic primary, and went on to face Rudy Giuliani, then best known as an aggressive federal prosecutor. In the general election, lifted both by Black pride and a desire by the white liberal population for unity in the divided metropolis, Dinkins overcame the Republican candidate’s dogwhistle tactics to come out with a narrow victory. For the gang of four, Dinkins’ ascension as the 106th Mayor of New York was the summation of decades of civic struggle.

However, the ethnic turf battles that were essential parts of NY’s character didn’t abate just because a black man was in City Hall.

Dinkins’ policies in his one term would be a harbinger of New York’s new direction. The city, and particularly Black working class areas in Brooklyn, the Bronx, and Manhattan, had been ravaged by crime and crack. In 1990 alone there were 2,200 homicides in the city. Blacks, as well as whites, wanted more effective law enforcement. Dinkins lobbied successfully to put more police in the streets with his “Safe Streets Safe City” initiative; he focused resources on cleaning up Times Square, which had become a cesspool of vice. He also began addressing the AIDS crisis, which Koch had been slow to confront. A diehard tennis buff, Dinkins initiated renovations at the U.S. Tennis Center in Flushing, Queens that made it one of the nation’s premiere sports and tourist attractions. All these moves, and others, would set the stage for the revival the city experienced in the ’80s.

However, the ethnic turf battles that were essential parts of NY’s character didn’t abate just because a Black man was in City Hall. The most notorious event of Dinkins’ tenure came in 1991, when a seven-year-old Black child, Gavin Cato, was run over by a Jewish driver in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. In the aftermath, a Hasidic student, Yankel Rosenblum, was stabbed to death. Three days of Jew vs. Black vs. police unrest rocked the central Brooklyn neighborhood.

The media and Giuliani depicted Dinkins as dithering and ineffective. Dinkins himself would later admit to being slow to react, but that didn’t help him in his 1993 election rematch with Giuliani; the Republican narrowly defeated the incumbent. Much like Trump would do to Obama years later, Giuliani acted as if Dinkins’ time in Gracie Mansion had been a disaster when, in fact, the momentum for that redefinition of NY began under his predecessor.

As a columnist for the Village Voice during Dinkins’ mayoral tenure, I was often critical of Dinkins. I once titled a column “Dinkins’s World, Sharpton’s People,” setting the Mayor’s inability to inspire the Black community in contrast to the activist minister who seemed to be at the center of every racial flashpoint in New York. With age and maturity, I’m much more appreciative of what Dinkins and those of his generation did in a time when the battles for power and neighbors were tribal in their ferocity. None of New York’s current generation of Black politicians possess the gravitas or collective power of Dinkins and his peers — and with the all-consuming gentrification in traditional Black areas like Bedford-Stuyvesant, I’m not sure any ever will again.

Ultimately, Dinkins’ legacy will be one of hope: attempting to build racial harmony, optimism about the city’s future, and enduring in the face of resistance. Now contrast that with the current status of his great rival, Rudy Giuliani. Need I say more?

Author and filmmaker. Current books: a novel, The Darkest Hearts (Akashic); music collection The Nelson George Mixtape (Pacific)

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