Skip to content, or skip to search.

Skip to content, or skip to search.

Blacks and Jews

"Where I grew up, in Chicago," says Gordon Davis, a former New York City parks commissioner, "when blacks were finally able to move out of the ghetto, the fact was that it was safe to move to the Jewish neighborhoods. At worst, the Jews would simply move away. If we went to the white ethnic neighborhoods like Cicero, there was real fear that we'd be stoned or killed or driven out. That's a big difference."

The white politician identified most closely with the proposition that whites should shout back is Ed Koch. The mayor of New York insists that he treats all people equally. He is rightfully proud of a record that includes more minority appointments to a mayoral administration than ever before—although he refuses to sanction affirmative-action programs with specific timetables because he believes such actions reinforce inequality by pandering to minorities. This, says Koch, "is to my credit."

Still, since he refuses to acknowledge that rhetoric is often reality, Koch is in trouble with New York's blacks. "A great number of whites are afraid to tell blacks what they feel," says Bayard Rustin. "Koch doesn't get in that jam, and blacks simply aren't used to it. On the other hand, Koch is too readily an exacerbater. He's not anti-black. He's a bigmouth. And politically, he is destructive to the city because he creates an atmosphere that causes distrust on both sides. He does this by attempting to make political hay by attracting those who don't want minorities to get away with things anymore."

The latest flaps concern Koch's remarks about anti-Semitism among black leaders and his relationship with a black-Jewish coalition designed to further racial harmony. Koch correctly points to the presence of anti-Koch leaders in the coalition and then only sees a "cabal" out for his hide. The Jewish reaction to Koch's statements has been heated—and mixed. Al Vorspan lashed out at the mayor; Nate Perlmutter said Vorspan was "contributing to black-Jewish abrasions, rather than soothing them."

For most of the established black political leadership, Representative Charles Rangel answered a year ago: "Anyone else who would say and do what Ed Koch says and does, people would refer them to a psychiatrist."

Well before Koch hits the couch, and especially if an all-Jewish ticket actually materializes, the mayor will have company in crying "cabal." For no matter how unpremeditated an all-Jewish slate might be, blacks know as well as anyone that the balanced ticket was practically invented in New York. No one else believes in coincidences. Why should they?

Facing electoral arithmetic that says he cannot win re-election without capturing a decent share of the city's minority vote, the mayor is now arranging meetings to repair his image. "I'm trying very hard," says Koch, "to deal with some leaders who I don't like. . . . I'm someone who is not going to be punched without punching back." The point, though, says one of the mayor's closest friends, is that "Ed too often stages a preemptive strike."

Koch's true feelings about most of the established black leadership are not unlike President Reagan's. "I have come to the conclusion," said the president recently, "that maybe some of those leaders are protecting some rather good [political] positions that they have, and they can protect them better if they can keep their constituency aggrieved and believing that they have a legitimate complaint." "I'm sure," says the mayor, "that some people in the [minority] community probably say to themselves, 'If we meet with him and he's able to resolve problems in a reasonable way, what have we got? We've got no issue.' So then you have how they react now" — a reference to the refusal of some black leaders to dine informally with him at Gracie Mansion in favor of a more structured meeting—" 'We'll meet, but we won't eat.'"

It is right for blacks to wonder about a political system that might well fill the Democratic slate with Jews this fall. One reason for an all-Jewish ticket is simple: The mayor and Comptroller Harrison Goldin are incumbents, and the leading candidates for City Council president—Manhattan Borough President Andrew Stein and Deputy Mayor Kenneth Lipper—just happen to be Jewish. Another, more complex reason involves the failure of New York's black leadership to produce a candidate capable of capturing white support. Two who might command white backing, Charlie Rangel and Gordon Davis, aren't interested. A third, Basil Paterson, seemed ready to run but pulled back at the last minute.

But even if New York had a black mayor, the fundamental problems would remain. Psychology aside, the life of blacks hasn't improved noticeably in the American cities that have chosen black leaders. "A black mayor," says Bayard Rustin, "is not Nirvana. The problems are deeper."


  • Archive: “Features
  • From the Feb 4, 1985 issue of New York