the city politic

What It Means That New York Just Elected Its Second Black Mayor

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer. Photo: Angela Weiss/Getty Images

On the night David Dinkins was elected New York’s first Black mayor 32 years ago, folks in Harlem were literally dancing in the streets. According to the New York Times, “The celebration got so lively that a disk jockey had to plead with people not to dance on top of parked cars as the beat of a rap song called ‘Vote for Dinkins’ filled the night air.”

A generation later, the election of Eric Adams took place in an atmosphere of almost casual inevitability. The Associated Press called the race for Adams within minutes after the polls closed. Less than two hours later, the mayor-elect had left his own victory event in Brooklyn to schmooze with corporate and Hollywood celebrities at a swanky after-party in Noho.

It’s a blessing — and a measure of New York’s progress — that our second Black mayor was elected in a campaign that was virtually free of the deep antagonism, slashing attacks, and racial polarization of Dinkins’s 1989 dual victories over Ed Koch in the Democratic primary and Rudy Giuliani in the general election.

One reason for the mellower mood: Even with the crushing blow dealt by the pandemic, the city is nowhere near the chaos of 1989, when New York was coming apart at the seams. Crack was ravaging neighborhoods and the AIDS epidemic was blazing out of control, with nearly 7,000 new cases diagnosed that year and more than 5,000 deaths. Violent crime was surging upwards toward a dizzying modern peak of 2,600 murders in a single year.

In April of 1989, as Dinkins was running, a white woman — dubbed the Central Park Jogger and later identified as Trisha Meili — was beaten and raped while jogging, with five Black and Latino youngsters accused (falsely, it turns out) of attacking her during a night of “wilding.” The tabloids went nuts; local businessman Donald Trump bought a full-page newspaper ad calling for the kids to be executed.

Later in that same tumultuous year, a 16-year-old Black boy, Yusef Hawkins, was chased by dozens of white youths, beaten, and shot to death for nothing more than walking down the street in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, a victim of mistaken identity and mob violence in a fiercely segregated neighborhood.

Dinkins cut through the noisy chaos with the slogan “you don’t have to be loud to be strong.” He was elected on a promise to heal wounds, lower the temperature, and calm the angry tribes of a badly fractured city.

Fast-forward 32 years, and Adams was running in a radically different city, one where last year’s 462 murders represent a troubling rise from the record low of 290 in 2017 — but still a world away from the 50-murders-per-week mayhem of the early 1990s.

When Dinkins ran, no Black officials held citywide or statewide office — and that paucity added to the excitement of his campaign. “I feel it’s time New York City had Black representation,” a schoolteacher told the Times back then, “because we have none now.”

By contrast, New York’s Black political class has grown to a stunning size and diversity in the Adams era. In the Democratic primary, Adams ran against a corporate titan (Ray McGuire); an activist civil-rights attorney (Maya Wiley); and a nonprofit executive (Dianne Morales), who all offered very different versions of how to be a Black leader. That level of competitive diversity would have been unthinkable in 1989.

Adams will take his place amid a crowd of impressive Black officials, some of whose power rivals that of the mayor. Adams will be sworn in in a New York whose assembly speaker, State Senate majority leader, and attorney general are all Black, along with two of the city’s five district attorneys, two borough presidents, the public advocate, and a local member of Congress (Hakeem Jeffries) who is on the shortlist to become the next Speaker of the House.

The part of the equation that hasn’t changed in 32 years — and the secret of Adams’s success — is the ability, and the courage, to speak for and connect with the city’s most needy, desperate, and forgotten families.

“My father remembered when he was young, talking with neighbors who themselves remembered the days of slavery,” Dinkins said at his victory speech in 1989.   “Tonight, we’ve forged a new link in that chain of memory. One of those folks my dad knew never thought America would see … someone like them would be elected to the highest office of the greatest city in the world.”

Adams made a similar, direct appeal to the city’s struggling classes in his victory speech. “The campaign was never, never, never about me,” he said. “ This campaign was about this city and the people in it, from every corner and every background in this city. Those who have been left behind and believed they would never catch up. This campaign was for the underserved, the marginalized, the abandoned.”

Later in the speech, he made a promise. “This is not my moment. This is the moment for all the people who have hit the bend in the road. A bend in the road is not the end of the road as long as you make the turn. Tonight we are going to make the turn and take our city in a new direction.”

Now Adams heads for City Hall carrying the hopes of millions on his shoulders — and 48 short months to tackle many of the same deep-seated wounds that bedeviled his predecessor. Perhaps, like his campaign, it will all work out more easily than we expected.

What It Means That NYC Just Elected Its Second Black Mayor