Dinkins’ controversial responses to the three major racial incidents of his mayoralty essentially defined his time in office. The Korean grocery boycott of 1990-91 and the Crown Heights (1991) and Washington Heights (1992) disturbances all cast Dinkins in the eyes of his critics as a hesitant leader at best and at worst a panderer to radicalized violence and reverse bigotry. McNickle’s analysis of these three crises is as detailed and balanced as we are likely to get from any biographer.
McNickle also offers a relatively overlooked explanation for Dinkins’ often tortuously deliberate approaches to these and other challenges. Obscured by the prevailing view of Dinkins as an urban liberal, labor advocate, and civil rights pioneer is another important identity: Tammany Hall machine politician. As McNickle observes, a “machine” culture entails more than rewarding friends and punishing enemies. It encourages an aversion to hasty judgments and a reluctance to make decisions until absolutely necessary. The Tammany tradition that formed Dinkins’ political sensibilities was one of closed-mouthed men who kept their own counsel and moved slowly and carefully. This style suited leaders like “Silent Charlie” Murphy, perhaps the most powerful of the Tammany bosses, during his reign in the early decades of the 20th century. But Charlie Murphy was never mayor of New York. He never had to unite a city or speak for all of its citizens. “Tammany leaders could be emotionless,” McNickle writes. “But the mayor of New York is the human point where the collective consciousness of the city’s millions of people comes together in a single person. He must read the public mood and respond to it to give expression to citywide emotions” (xvi).
But David Dinkins was also New York’s first African American mayor, with a deep and longstanding commitment to the struggle for equal rights in the city and nation. During the Korean grocery boycott and the Crown Heights and Washington Heights disturbances, there existed opposed “white” and “non-white” positions. Dinkins attempted to mediate the two. Eight months after the grocery protest began, he traveled to the store and made a symbolic purchase. But he also allowed the demonstrators to violate a court order keeping them a reasonable distance from the store and appointed a commission to investigate the incident that largely supported the boycotters. At Crown Heights Dinkins visited the deathbed of Yankel Rosenbaum, the Orthodox Jew stabbed by a rioter amid shouts of “Get the Jew!” But Dinkins would not order a full-on police crackdown against the violence in the area until its fourth night. While he had the police act more expeditiously during the Washington Heights disturbance, Dinkins also met with the family of the slain drug offender and had the city pay for his body to be flown to his funeral in the Dominican Republic.
Through these responses, Dinkins sought a center that could not hold. In the racially fraught New York of the early 1990s, it was impossible to simultaneously address the concerns of rival ethnic/racial coalitions that McNickle labels “conservative” (Catholics, less liberal Jews, and culturally traditional Latinos) and “liberal” (African Americans, most Latinos, and left-of-center Jews). It was Dinkins’ misfortune to be mayor during a period when these coalitions were of almost equal strength and the middle ground between them virtually nonexistent.
Dinkins’ own political psyche was deeply divided. On one hand he was a coalition builder, assuring white New Yorkers that a vote for him was one for racial peace and implying that this peace could be achieved at little or no cost to them. On the other he was a self-conscious symbol of racial change and of redistribution of social, political, and economic resources that would indeed exact a price from whites in the city. Dinkins’ refusal to immediately cross the Korean grocery boycott picket line, his delay in ordering a crackdown on the Crown Heights violence, and his courtesies to the family of a violent criminal in Washington Heights all sent unwelcome messages to whites. Enough of them defected to Rudolph Giuliani –- a “white” candidate if there ever was one -– to swing the 1993 election to him. Dinkins, then, may have been less a “failure” than a racial truth-teller whose message was ahead of its time.
Even this may not give Dinkins enough credit. The long shadow cast by Rudolph Giuliani on New York City mayoral politics makes his victory in 1993 appear almost foreordained. It was not. The 1993 election was extremely close. As McNickle shows, relatively small drop-offs in support among Jewish and Latino voters from Dinkins’ 1989 totals, combined with an especially heavy turnout on Staten Island (a secession referendum for the borough was on the ballot that year) combined to convert a narrow Dinkins victory in 1989 into a narrow defeat in 1993. Dinkins won 50.4% of the city’s votes for mayor in 1989, and 48% in 1993. His “failure” may have amounted to losing a closely contested reelection bid whose outcome was in doubt until its final hours.
Dinkins also began to change the cultural landscape of the city. His view of New York as a “gorgeous mosaic,” derided and parodied by his political opponents at the time, proved prescient and anticipated the diverse city of the 21st century. Dinkins may have done more to realize the vision of a broadly inclusive New York than any mayor since Fiorello La Guardia. The politics and culture of the contemporary city bear the stamp of his years in office.
But while David Dinkins may not have failed as mayor, neither did he succeed. The straitened economic times in which he governed made it impossible to be what he was at heart: a liberal who wished to expand government services and advance the fortunes of organized labor. Whipsawed between budget hawks and doves within his own administration, he was hamstrung in his efforts on both fronts. As McNickle notes, Dinkins did not govern the New York of Fiorello La Guardia, Robert Wagner, or even John Lindsay, in which a workable consensus existed in support of public spending and union rights. In the wake of the city’s mid-1970s fiscal crisis a neoliberal impulse emerged that challenged older verities. Dinkins had to deal with its implications in the 1990s and could muster at best about half the electorate in support of his more expansive goals. He was forced to govern as a reluctant budget-balancer and fiscal realist. Dinkins had spent over three decades climbing the greasy pole of New York City politics, no doubt dreaming of the generous, egalitarian city he would govern when he reached the top. But when he finally arrived, his moment was gone, a casualty of the harsh truths of municipal economics and the costs of good intentions. Even the power of the mayor would not be enough. It is indeed better to be lucky than good.
Jerald Podair is Professor of History at Lawrence University, and the author of The Strike That Changed New York: Blacks, Whites, and the Ocean Hill-Brownsville Crisis.
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