David Dinkins’s Real Political Legacy: Transcending Racist Trolling, Advancing Black Hope

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Political tributes and memories continued to flood through social media, airwaves and cable channels on Wednesday as New Yorkers and political watchers reflected on the legacy of David Dinkins, New York City’s 106th mayor, who died Monday at the age of 93.

Some articles highlighted his trailblazing role as the city’s only nonwhite mayor. Others dismissed him as insufficiently charismatic to deal with rising crime and racial unrest of the early 1990s.

But perhaps the best lesson to be found in the Dinkins tributes is how the political legacy of a controversial mayor can come into focus long after he leaves office—and how political history repeats itself in surprising ways.

Those with sharp memories of New York City politics critiqued a tweet late Monday night from Rudy Giuliani, who extended his condolences to the Dinkins family, saying the ex-mayor’s service “is honored and respected by all.”

That wasn’t Giuliani’s tone in the late 1980s when Dinkins narrowly defeated Giuliani, then a US attorney who would return to beat Dinkins four years later in 1993, inspiring a backlash that kept Democrats out of City Hall for 20 years.

“Giuliani is to Dinkins what Trump was to Obama,” said Christina Greer, an associate professor of political science at Fordham University and author of the book “Black Ethics: Race, Immigration and The Pursuit of the American Dream. “Someone who trolled a Black man who had way more class dignity, education and intelligence, constantly incited racist tropes to distract from the fact that this Black person was actually doing a solid job.”

Listen to Brigid Bergin discuss former mayor David Dinkins’s legacy with David Furst on WNYC:

While Dinkins entered office with a promise of racial healing and an embrace of what he called the city’s “gorgeous mosaic” he ran headlong into an economic recession, high crime rates, and racial strife, including the 1991 Crown Heights riot, where protesters took to the streets after a Hasidic driver hit and killed an African American boy. A rabbinical student was also killed during the protests.

Crown Heights was seized upon by Giuliani, who was such a constant critic of the Dinkins administration he even joined thousands of off-duty police officers who surrounded City Hall in September 1992 rioting against the sitting mayor.https://platform.twitter.com/embed/index.html?dnt=false&embedId=twitter-widget-1&frame=false&hideCard=false&hideThread=false&id=1331394235963158529&lang=en&origin=http%3A%2F%2Fgothamist.com%2Ffood%2Fglorias-crown-heights-abruptly-closes-amid-allegations-fraud-deed-theft-and-cruelty&siteScreenName=gothamist&theme=light&widgetsVersion=ed20a2b%3A1601588405575&width=550px

That trolling seems normalized now. Supporters also said that although his opponents led racist attacks against him that contributed to his defeat for a second term, he also inspired a new generation of Black activists.

It’s also not unusual how Dinkins’s policies laid the groundwork for future actions credited to other mayors, including those that led to community policing and ultimately put more cops on the streets. Those efforts helped drive down crime through the next administration, according to some business leaders and his supporters.

Dinkins also created the current iteration of the Civilian Complaint Review Board, the agency tasked with oversight of the NYPD, following a police corruption scandal. But the agency has struggled for decades, suffering from underfunding and criticized for being ineffective. Only recently has it started to gain traction as the complaint records are increasingly subject to public inspection.

Peter Knobler, a New York City writer who co-authored Dinkins’s memoir, said another major accomplishment that Dinkins himself was very proud of, was the development deal that brought the USTA National Tennis Center to Flushing Meadows, Queens. It is home to the U.S. Open.

“It was very, very important because New York City was dying for money and the city didn’t have to invest in the building. It got rent and it got 1% of the gross of the Open, forever. That’s a ton of money,” said Knobler, who spent three years working on the memoir with Dinkins.

Mayor David Dinkins and Rep. Charles Rangel sit in the stands of the US Open
Former New York City Mayor David Dinkins (l) and Rep Charles Rangel watch a match between Rafael Nadal and Teymuraz Gabashvili during the 2010 U.S. Open in Flushing Meadows PETER FOLEY/EPA/SHUTTERSTOCK

Dinkins joined the Marine Corps after high school, attended Howard University and then Brooklyn Law School. He then rose through the ranks of Harlem Democratic leaders, becoming a state assemblyman, president of the Board of Elections and Manhattan borough president.

Dinkins’s own rise is interwoven with a tightly knit group of powerful Harlem power brokers known as the Gang of Four, including Basil Paterson, the former New York secretary of state and father of former New York Governor David Paterson; Percy Sutton, the long-serving Manhattan borough president and first serious Black candidate for mayor; and former Congressman Charles Rangel, the only surviving member of the foursome.

The influential group had deep connections with leaders across the city, but served as mentors and stand-in father figures for each other’s children and extended Harlem family.

That’s how Elinor Tatum, publisher and editor in chief of the New York Amsterdam News, the oldest Black newspaper in New York City, described Dinkins. She said her first job was working on his Manhattan borough president campaign in 1985, when she was just 13, working out of what was then known as the Penta Hotel (now the Hotel Pennsylvania on Seventh Avenue). When he was elected, she was a member of his Youth Advisory Board.

“He actually took young people and listened to their voices and made us count,” said Tatum, noting that Dinkins regularly attended their meetings.

Giving young people a voice, and the confidence to use it, is how many of those who grew up around Dinkins described him. Keisha Sutton-James, Percy Sutton’s granddaughter, said Dinkins would always say he stood on her grandfather’s shoulders, crediting him for running such a “classy campaign” for mayor in 1977 that no one laughed him out a room when he ran a decade later.

On the Brooklyn Bridge, numerous marchers hold flags in Red, Gold, and Green; in the front are the Saikou Diallo, Rev. Al Sharpton, former Mayor Dinkins, and PercySutton, who are holding signs "In Memory of Amadou Diallo"
At least 5,000 demonstrators, lead by Saikou Diallo, second from left, Rev. Al Sharpton, center, former mayor David Dinkins, second from right, and Percy Sutton, right, march in a rally to protest police brutality over New York’s Brooklyn Bridge on April 15, 1999. CHRYSTIE SHERMAN/AP/SHUTTERSTOCK

She also played down the moments of political backlash that seemingly replay throughout American political history. While her grandfather’s mayoral bid ended in defeat, she saw Dinkins’s success a decade later as part of the continuum of progress. Similarly, even though Dinkins served only one term, his election paved the way for other Black leaders, from President Obama, to the current crop of 2021 mayoral candidates which includes multiple candidates of color.

“There will always be this regression. We’ve seen that from the Reconstruction. We saw that with Jim Crow. We’ve seen that with the Tea Party and Trump,” said Sutton-James, but she also stressed for all the setbacks, she was still optimistic.

She is currently working as political consultant on Alvin Bragg’s campaign for Manhattan district attorney. He would become the first Black person to hold that post. “The mission is to continue to make progress and not be distracted by the regression,” she added.

Dinkins was a mentor to many Black New Yorkers with their eye on public service. Martha Stark was a lawyer in the private sector when Dinkins ran for mayor the first time. She was so inspired by his candidacy that she left her job as a tax attorney to go work in the Department of Finance. She would later become the finance commissioner for the Bloomberg administration. Stark said Dinkins was committed to bringing people together, something that is badly needed today.

“We are one city and it’s really quite a great one. One that kind of combines people from all walks of life and all backgrounds and we should figure out how we can all be in this together,” Starks said. “That is especially true with COVID, with us trying to figure out how to be an anti-racist city where Black and brown lives matter. We kind of owe it to David Dinkins to do our best.”

WNYC reporter Cindy Rodriguez contributed to this report.

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