More Than Words? Bloomberg and Race

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Three days after Patrick Dorismond, an unarmed black man, was killed by the police in early 2000, Mayor Rudy Giuliani explained why he had released details from the dead man’s sealed juvenile arrest record. The mayor blamed the victim, saying, “[The media] would not want a picture presented of an altar boy, when in fact, maybe it isn’t an altar boy, it’s some other situation that may justify, more closely, what the police officer did.”

Two days after Sean Bell, an unarmed black man, was shot and killed by the police in late 2006, Mike Bloomberg gave his take on the shooting, in which officers had fired a fusillade of bullets. The mayor blamed the cops, saying, ‘It sounds to me like excessive force was used. I can tell you that it is to me unacceptable or inexplicable how you can have 50-odd shots fired.’

Each mayor confronted smoldering outrage. Giuliani’s comments were like gasoline. Bloomberg’s were cool water. The incidents reflected a 180-degree shift in how City Hall, beginning in Bloomberg’s first term, confronted racial conflict. Even some of the mayor’s critics give him credit for injecting an air of civility and inclusion into race relations. “Here is the one thing I do admire,” the mayor’s Democratic challenger in 2005, Fernando Ferrer, said in a debate that year. “Mike Bloomberg did not go down the path of exacerbating racial tensions in this city. And as a New Yorker, Mike, I thank you for that.”

But while the mayor’s style in talking about race has earned him wide praise, the impact of his policies—in schools, on policing, regarding development—on communities of color is grist for the debate between Bloomberg’s allies and opponents. The mayor has tried to reduce racial disparities in schools and health. But his policies on crime and development have exacerbated inequalities.

To his staunchest opponents, the mayor’s record on race does not merit commendation. “A civil way of disrespecting somebody is equally as offensive—perhaps more so—than the more overt way,” says state Sen. Bill Perkins, a Democrat who represents Harlem, Washington Heights and the Upper West Side. “What it does is it masks with ‘politeness’ the underlying stubbornness of the racial problems that we have.”

A different approach

For Bloomberg to have navigated eight years in office without a high-profile racial explosion could be considered an achievement in itself. In the past 40 years of New York political history, most of the city’s milestone conflicts have revolved around race. John Lindsay chose sides in a battle between white school teachers and black parents in Brownsville. Ed Koch mishandled the reaction to the murder of Yusef Hawkins. David Dinkins felt a white backlash after the Crown Heights riots. And Rudy Giuliani saw the deaths of Amadou Diallo and Dorismond, and the brutal assault of Abner Louima.

When Louima was beaten and sodomized by cops in a precinct bathroom in the middle of Giuliani’s 1997 re-election campaign, the mayor expressed regret. But less than two years later, when four white cops shot Diallo 19 times for the crime of reaching for his wallet, Giuliani expressed some compassion for the victim but defended the officers and ridiculed the NYPD’s critics. By the time Dorismond was slain, after scuffling with an undercover cop who offended him by asking to buy drugs, Giuliani had a poisonous relationship with many black leaders.

Bloomberg has also been confronted with police violence toward blacks. Before the Bell killing in late 2006, there was the no-knock raid that killed innocent Alberta Spruill in May 2003, the killing of unarmed immigrant Ousmane Zongo a few days later and the slaying of unarmed teenager Timothy Stansbury, Jr. in January 2004. In each case, the administration’s reaction was noted for its sensitivity. At the funeral for Spruill, a 57-year-old woman who died of a heart attack when police used a stun grenade in a raid on the wrong apartment, he took the blame: “As mayor, I failed to protect someone.” In the Zongo case, Bloomberg declared, “It would appear that something was done wrong.” Police Commissioner Ray Kelly declared within a day of Stansbury’s death that “there appears to be no justification for the shooting.” Such admissions of mistakes were unheard of during the Rudy years.

Between the crises, Bloomberg formed bonds with community leaders whom Giuliani had largely shunned. Joyce Johnson, then president of the Black Equity Alliance, endorsed the mayor in March. “He’s reached out to communities across the city, listened and brought people together from all different groups,” Johnson said. In Joyce Purnick’s recent biography of the mayor, the former New York Times writer reports that on the evening of his election in 2001, Bloomberg called Rev. Al Sharpton and promised him access to City Hall.

The police department also has become more diverse during the Bloomberg years. It was 64 percent white in 2001; now it’s 53 percent white. Latinos now make up a quarter of the force, blacks 17 percent and Asians 5 percent. The most recent class of Police Academy graduates is more heavily weighted toward Latinos and Asians, at 33 percent and 10 percent, respectively. Blacks made up 15 percent and whites 42 percent.

School changes impress some

Bloomberg’s campaign depicts him—a white Republican whose opponent, comptroller Bill Thompson, is trying to become the city’s second black mayor—as the recipient of an unprecedented level of minority support. While no member of a racial or ethnic group can be certain to speak for its members, Bloomberg points to a slew of endorsements from blacks, Latinos, Asians and South Asians. His campaign has launched “African Americans for Bloomberg” and other ethnic affiliates.

“I think Bloomberg has been very effective at reaching out to black leaders and making them feel that they in the conversation in a way that they weren’t under Giuliani,” says Mark Naison, a professor of African American studies at Fordham University. “He goes to the community. It’s one of his constituencies. He’s also built up a relationship with people like Al Sharpton and others around school issues.”

There are at least 20 black religious leaders in his fold, including Rev. Calvin Butts of Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church, Rev. Floyd Flake from the Allen AME Cathedral in Jamaica and Rev. A. R. Bernard of the Christian Cultural Center in Brooklyn. The mayor has the backing of the NYPD Hispanic Society and the presidents of the Manhattan Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and Latinos Americanos Unidos. The Ming Pao Daily News and the leader of the Pakistani Civic Association of Staten Island are also on board.

In endorsing the mayor last month, Butts pointed to Bloomberg’s record on schools. “Mayor Bloomberg has taken responsibility for educating our children, and by modernizing the curriculum and ending social promotion, children have a better chance of succeeding in an increasingly competitive world,” said Butts. “Mayor Bloomberg’s commitment to improving our schools affirms the principle that until we close the achievement gap and give all our kids a fighting chance, our communities can never fully prosper.”

Bloomberg’s school reforms—which accompanied an increase in the school budget from $12 billion to $18 billion during his terms—do appear to have benefitted students of color. From 2006 to 2009, the number of black third through eighth graders scoring at or above grade level on standardized English tests rose 51 percent. Among Latinos, it increased 45 percent. Their gains far outpaced whites, whose scores improved only 18 percent. In 2001, only 41 percent of Latino high school students graduated on time and a mere 44 percent of blacks, to 72 percent of whites. In 2008, the DOE reported, the rate for Latinos was 53 percent, for blacks 56 percent, and for whites 75 percent. The graduation rate for Asians improved from 69 to 77 percent.

Manuel Lantigua, president of the New York Dominican Officers Association, said in endorsing the mayor that, “It’s very important what he has done with education. To me that was something that takes leadership.” He added, “It has tremendously improved the school system.”

Stunning racial gaps remain. While black and Latino passing rates in the lower grades improved, they still lagged whites’ by 20 percent. In high schools, a yawning 30-point gap in graduation rates has narrowed to a still stunning 20-point gap. There is a racial gap even among those who graduated: In 2007, about 56 percent of black and Latino graduates got Regents diplomas, compared to 79 percent of whites. The rest got lower caliber local diplomas.

Skeptics, of course, question even those gains. The city’s progress on national tests, which are harder than the state exams, has lagged.

But almost no one questions the mayor’s commitment to public health, be it via the smoking ban, trying to improve New Yorkers’ diets by getting more vegetables and low-fat milk into low-income communities or attempting to restrict traffic into Manhattan to reduce tailpipe emissions and the asthma for which they are blamed. Those efforts target health problems that disproportionately affect people who aren’t white.

In 2006, the mayor launched a high-profile but small-scale effort to reduce poverty in the city, which affects blacks and Latinos more than whites. It is unlikely that the mayor’s modest menu of pilot projects, some funded with private money, has had the time or scale to meaningfully affect poverty in the city. Nonetheless, the poverty rate among blacks dropped from 25 percent to 21 percent from 2001 to 2008, and from 30 percent to 26 percent among Latinos. The white poverty rate ebbed from 12 percent to 11 percent. But it is likely that those gains are slipping during the recession, as joblessness has soared.

Crunching the crime numbers

Like his efforts on schools, health and poverty, the mayor’s nationwide crusade against illegal guns has a positive effect on minorities, since 88 percent of people murdered in New York are black or Latino. If the city’s murder rate had stayed at its 2001 level through Bloomberg’s tenure instead of dropping by 19 percent, there would have been 718 more killings from 2002 through 2008. Judging by the racial breakdown of the murders that did occur, those uncommitted murders would have left 439 blacks and 194 Latinos dead. Fifty-eight whites and 29 Asians would have perished.

But as striking as the racial disparity in murders is, the racial aspects of the NYPD’s stop and question or frisk program are far more dramatic.

Police stops of citizens have exploded under Bloomberg, from 315,000 in 2004 to 531,000 last year. In the first half of 2009, the police stopped 312,000 people, putting it on pace to break 630,000 this year; 84 percent of them were black or Hispanic. A small number were Asian.

“Mayor Giuliani had a major problem with stop-and-frisk,” recalls state Sen. Eric Adams, a Brooklyn Democrat and retired police captain. “Bloomberg’s police department has four times the number of those same type of stops. They’ve been stopping everybody.”

The NYPD has defended the practice by pointing to the descriptions that crime victims give of suspects, which suggest that 72 percent of suspects are black or Hispanic (Race is not identified for 22 percent of suspects, so blacks and Latinos make up about 92 percent of those for whom race is identified). The links between the stops and actual crimes are weak, however. The number of reported stops has gone up as crime has continued to fall. And only 6 percent of the blacks and Hispanics stopped were arrested, while another 6 percent were issued summonses. The vast majority—231,000—were not doing anything wrong.

“There’s clearly a racial problem—a very serious racial problem,” says Perkins of the stops. “Those numbers suggest you picked up an enormous number of people and an infinitesimally small number were of substance. That’s profiling.”

In last week’s mayoral debate, Bloomberg said the police stops “is an effective tool for keeping crime down” and added, “I think the Police Department has struck the right balance.”

Under Bloomberg, the police have also pursued small-scale marijuana possession with a vengeance, arresting a quarter of a million people—most of them black or Latino—for the lowest-level pot possession charge.

The upward trends in police stops and drug arrests haven’t generated much discussion—certainly not as much as police shootings have. In Bloomberg’s first five years in office, 60 suspects were shot and killed by cops, compared to 75 during Giuliani’s last five years, according to annual NYPD reports. Since 1997, the department has omitted from those reports the race of suspects killed or of the officers who kill them.

Some members of the Muslim community have taken issue with the NYPD’s practice of planting informants in mosques and the arrests that tactic have generated. They’ve also denounced a 2007 report by the NYPD’s intelligence division which depicted “wearing traditional Islamic clothing, growing a beard” and “becoming involved in social activism and community issues” as indicators of possible radicalization, and concluded that “radicalization continues permeating New York City, especially its Muslim communities.”

“That report has painted the entire Muslim community as potential terrorists,” says Wael Mousfar, president of Arab Muslim American Federation. “Spy all you want, but do not entrap people into becoming what they are not.” Mousfar also blames Bloomberg for the city’s resistance to a three-year campaign to put Muslim holidays alongside Christian and Jewish ones on the school calendar.

Mohammed Ravzi, president of the Brooklyn-based Council of Peoples Organizations and a leader in the South Asian community, has endorsed the mayor. “Right after 9/11, the impact on our community was great in terms of hate crimes and discrimination. Bloomberg hired the first South Asian immigration commissioner,” he says, and helped advocates to document the scale of mistreatment the community was suffering. That led to Executive Order 41, in which Bloomberg ordered police officers and other city employees not to pry into the immigration status of the people they encountered. Bloomberg, says Razvi, has delivered, “not just words, but action.”

The impact of development

In a videotaped endorsement on the Bloomberg campaign website, Peter Nguyen, president of the Vietnamese American Community Association of New York—saying he was speaking “on behalf of the Vietnamese-American community”—said: “After 9/11, the city was down financially and he carried the city for the next eight years, bought it back to par and actually even better than before 9/11, with the tourism and the safety of the city.”

When talking about his economic record, the mayor has pointed to his rezoning of much of the city as a proud accomplishment. But changes to the zoning map of several neighborhoods—like Jamaica, 125th Street and the Lower East Side—and the process of gentrification in those and other areas have raised questions about the impact of the city’s zoning and development policies.

The mayor’s housing plan offers some relief to low-income renters, but the location of that housing might be part of the problem, say some.

“The polices the Bloomberg administration has pursued on economic development have vastly exacerbated the disparities between rich and poor in New York City and have also encouraged not only gentrification but also displacement of people of color from mixed neighborhoods into homogeneous areas of the Bronx and south Brooklyn and Queens,” Naison says. “During Bloomberg’s mayoralty, more and more poor people of color are being pushed out of Williamsburg, the Lower East Side, Harlem, Bushwick, Fort Greene, even Park Slope and all the new housing is being placed in hyper-segregated neighborhoods. I think the big problem under Bloomberg is the re-segregation of the city by letting the market do its work without any sort of plan.”

Activists in north Brooklyn recently sued the city over what they say was racial discrimination in city planning decisions concerning Broadway Triangle, where Orthodox Jews and the Brooklyn Democratic machine plan to build housing that critics say excludes African Americans and others. The city is also a defendant in a suit over the Lower East Side rezoning of 2008. While supported by some neighborhood groups, opponents said the zoning permits higher density development that will hurt low-income residents and small businesses.

“It clearly had an impact on Chinatown that the City Planning Commission basically ignored,” says Margaret Fung, executive director of the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund. Fung sees this as part of a record of negligence by the administration. “I think he’s basically ignored the Asian American community, especially the low-income community and workers,” she says, pointing to the long-standing dispute over the NYPD’s closure of Park Row. “It’s been frustrating because it’s been devastating to businesses.”

New York’s overall demographics have changed little since Bloomberg became mayor. But there is evidence to suggest that populations are shifting within the city. During the Bloomberg years, poor people, blacks and Latinos grew increase likely to move within their borough or from one borough to another. In 2004, people making less than 150 percent of poverty level were 8 percent more likely than wealthier people to move within one of the boroughs or to a different county. By 2008, they were 29 percent more likely. Hispanics were 31 percent more likely to move in that manner than whites in 2008. And blacks were 12 percent more likely than whites.

Development could be an important issue in the mayoral campaign. But it appears the race will largely revolve around the mayor’s overhaul of term limits. In polls last autumn, all racial groups opposed the change. But blacks were most opposed, with 66 percent disapproving of the move in a Quinnipiac Poll. “In communities like mine, [the term limits extension] resonated in a way that creates a lot of cynicism and apathy, and that to me is the most damaging thing he’s done,” says Perkins of the mayor.

In its editorial last week endorsing Thompson for mayor, El Diario agreed. “Even Venezuela’s President Hugo Chávez conducted a plebiscite on his extended stay in power,” it wrote. “New Yorkers were not even given that chance.”

El Diario gave Bloomberg credit for “putting poverty reduction on his agenda” and for having “steered the city safely through post-9/11 fears.” But it criticized “the persistent, increasing homelessness during his administration, the years of delay in responding to day laborers, the undercutting of home-based child care workers and the threat posed by hiring pricey consultants to replace low-paid city workers.”

The weight of words

While allowing that Bloomberg handles the public discussion of race better than Giuliani, the mayor’s critics say that’s a low threshold. “Mayor Bloomberg benefits from one of the worst periods of our history. I’m not talking about 9/11. I’m talking about Rudy Giuliani as mayor,” says Adams. “Whoever came after him was such a sigh of relief, you really didn’t truly examine the person on their own merits.”

But since part of the mayor’s job is to be a spokesman for the city, and to use his bully pulpit wisely, it’d be a mistake to dismiss Bloomberg’s role in lowering racial tension in the city. “I think there’s some credit he deserves for that,” says Mark Winston-Griffith, a City Council candidate in Brooklyn (who has served on the board of City Limits’ parent nonprofit, City Futures Inc.). “You can either be someone with a match at the tinderbox or you can be someone who at least gives the impression of having respect. He at least recognizes that voters of color are an important constituency.”

Bloomberg has offended on occasion, such as during the 2006 subway strike, when he referred to picketing workers, who were largely black and Latino, as “thugs.” Some critics cast Bloomberg’s decision to skip a debate at Harlem’s Apollo Theater in 2005 as a slight to the black community. (Any damage to the mayor was mitigated when a terrorism alert involving the subways was issued the night of that debate. The alert was later revealed to have been based on flawed intelligence.) But he has for the most part avoided publicly antagonizing communities of color.

Purnick’s biography reports that Bloomberg’s father was an early donor to the NAACP, and that Bloomberg himself donated money to the organization during his college days. The mayor’s father said, according to one telling, that “An injustice against one is an injustice against all and we all have to fight in the battle because we all benefit from that fight.”

Yet for all the outreach to communities of color, Bloomberg’s City Hall is whiter than the city. Of the 48 top officials—deputy mayors, counsel, agency and department heads—five are black, six are Latino and 37 are white, in a city where blacks and Latinos each comprise about a quarter of the population. Giuliani had four deputy mayors; three were white and one was black. Bloomberg has seven. One is black, one is Latino, and five are white.

Bloomberg’s campaign coalition of supporters has maintained a rainbow look, but the colors have been fluid. He won his first election in 2001 partly because racial animus between Mark Green and Ferrer split Democrats along racial lines. Bloomberg narrowly won the Latino vote. In 2005, he lost Latinos to Ferrer but, polls suggest, won among blacks.

A Quinnipiac College poll last month showed Bloomberg with a comfortable lead among Latinos, 53 percent to 37 percent, over Thompson. Among blacks, Thompson led 53 to 35.

The numbers are surprisingly similar to those Giuliani attracted in his final run for mayor. In its final pre-election poll in 1997, Quinnipiac College had Giuliani attracting the support of 57 percent of Latinos and 29 percent of blacks. (The polls do not break out responses by Asians or others.)

Obviously, New York’s nonwhite communities are complex. Blacks and Latinos don’t necessarily vote the same way, and within each community there are differences of nationality, income and other factors that affect political loyalties.

Whatever the mayor’s personal feelings on race, there is no doubt that being more open than Giuliani on race was smart politics for the mayor. (Though it’s worth remembering that even the former mayor generated some high-profile African-American support, as with an endorsement from Rev. Flake. Citing the drop in crime during Giuliani’s first term, Flake said, “I believe Rudy Giuliani represents our best hope for the next four years.”)

The city’s former executive showed this weekend that he’s still a lightning rod. Stumping for Bloomberg, Giuliani