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Race: The Issue

From the May 29, 1989 issue of New York Magazine.

On a pleasant spring evening, several weeks before the city was convulsed by the rape of the woman jogger in Central Park, Richard Ravitch found himself in the heart of Queens—as he often does these days, pressing his long-shot candidacy for mayor—trying to sell optimism to a room full of pessimists. "This city was built by optimists," he insisted. "By people who built the subways two stops beyond where the newest houses were going up. By people who built reservoirs, and roads, and bridges, an infrastructure far more sophisticated and expensive than was needed—because they had faith in the idea of New York, they knew the city would grow and prosper. . . ."

"It was different then," the man next to me muttered. This was an audience of mutterers—the Continental Regular Democratic Club: elderly Jews mostly, the sort of people who sit behind you in matinees and repeat the dialogue.

Ravitch plodded ahead, sensing that his attempt at urban rhapsody wasn't quite cutting it with this crowd, but pushing on anyway—to the immigrant experience, usually a winner with older folks. They loved to hear about the "wave after wave" of immigrants who came to New York "with a dream of building a life for themselves and their families. This city is an incubator", he said. "It provides an atmosphere of opportunity for each newly arrived group, where they can get a job, an education for their children and move into the mainstream. . . ."

"So what happened?" An elderly woman interrupted. "What about the—"

"Shhhh," said the man in front of her.

"No, let me say it," she said, putting a hand on the man's shoulder.

"Get your hand off me!" he yelled, and moved away. "Let him talk."

These were wild, inexplicable passions. Ravitch seemed lost, deflated: What was going on here? "Excuse me, Mr. Ravitch," said Arthur Katzman, a leader of the Continental Dems and a longtime member of the City Council. "But I must disagree with you about the immigrants. It was true of the immigrants who came from Europe, and also the Orientals. But these . . . others. The quality is not as good. The ability to contribute used to be greater." There was wild applause, which Katzman took to mean that it was time for a speech—and he careened off on a defense of the mayor and a tour of the homeless crisis, thereby relieving the candidate of the need to respond to that other question.

In a perfect world, Ravitch—whose lifelong devotion to the cause of civil rights is unimpeachable—would have gone back and chastised Katzman for the racial implication of his comments. He might have mentioned the thousands of West Indians and Hispanics who have opened stores and worked their way into the mainstream, the tens of thousands of American blacks who—against all odds—have gone to college, become teachers and nurses and public officials. A truly gutsy response would have gone on to acknowledge the social anarchy that has overtaken the black underclass, and the difficulties the city—and the nation—faces in trying to deal with it. But Ravitch should be forgiven his stunned evasion: Each of his fellow candidates would have done the same.

Race is an issue politicians go to great pains to avoid. It has been deemed unfit for open discussion, in all but the most platitudinous manner, for many years. The public is, oddly, complicit in this: People seem to sense that the topic is so raw, and their feelings so intense, that it's just too risky to discuss in mixed company. "It never comes up," says another mayoral hopeful. "Crime does all the time, but it's rarely linked to race. I get questions and comments in public meetings about everything under the sun—but never about race."

In private, though, race seems the only thing people are talking about these days—especially since the terrifyingly casual barbarism in Central Park last month. The radio talk shows, the true vox pop of the eighties, are full of it. The subject dominates fancy dinner parties in Manhattan; it comes up on supermarket lines in Queens and around kitchen tables in Brooklyn; it has suddenly become permissible to vent frustrations, to ask questions and say things—often ugly things—that have been forbidden in polite discourse for many years.

And the central question, at least among whites, is a version—more or less refined—of what Arthur Katzman was trying to get across in Queens that night: Why have so many blacks proved so resistant to incubation? Why, after 25 years of equal rights—indeed, of special remedial treatment under law—do so many remain outside the bounds of middle-class society? Why do even educated blacks seem increasingly remote, hostile, and paranoid? In a society besotted with quick fixes and easy answers to every problem, is this the one that will prove insoluble?


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