Bensonhurst Case and Do the Right Thing Revisited 25 Years Later

Tawana Told The Truth!

So blared the graffiti in Bed-Stuy in Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing, a film that was released roughly 25 years ago, in the summer of 1989 and, according to legend, served as the first date for Barack Obama and his future wife, Michelle.

That Tawana did not tell the truth was almost beside the point. The graffiti spoke to a larger issue, that African-Americans had been victimized by a series of hate crimes in New York in the 1980s.

The Michael Stewart case was the first noteworthy one in the early part of that decade.

Stewart was a subway graffiti artist who was killed in a chokehold by the police. Not surprisingly, in Do the Right Thing, the police use the very same method to subdue Radio Raheem, the teen who plays "Fight the Power" on his boom box before he gets into a fight with Danny Aiello's pizza owner.

Like Stewart, Radio Raheem ends up dying of asphyxiation from the chokehold.

At the time that Lee made the film, he spoke of how he hoped that it would not help Ed Koch, in the waning days of his third term as mayor, get reelected to a fourth.

Lee spoke for many blacks at the time when he voiced frustration and anger at the racial animus that pervaded the city during the Koch years. It was not just the death of Michael Stewart at the hands of the police. It was also Eleanor Bumpurs, an elderly black woman who was shot dead by the police in her Bronx apartment after allegedly brandishing a knife. It was the Howard Beach case, where a gang of white youths savagely beat up one African-American man and chased another to his death on the Belt Parkway.

Then there were the cases that might have been less overtly racist but still had a racial component: Bernhard Goetz shooting a gang of black teens who surrounded him on a subway train; Edmund Perry, a black honors student, getting killed in an altercation with an off-duty, white police officer (which may have inspired Tom Wolfe in his writing of Bonfire of the Vanities); a group of African-American kids being falsely convicted of the rape of the Central Park Jogger, a case that was only recently resolved, with a $40 million settlement in their favor; Tawana Brawley falsely claiming to have been raped by a group of white men.

Finally, in August of 1989, while Do the Right Thing was in the theaters, the Bensonhurst case erupted.

The case was similar to Howard Beach. Once again, a gang of white kids from a predominantly white enclave in the outer boroughs surrounded a few black teens and killed one of them, Yusuf Hawkins, in this case shooting him dead.

There may have been some question about mistaken identity and whether the ex-girlfriend of one of the white men, Keith Mondello, had spurned him for a black or Puerto Rican boyfriend. But in the end the Bensonhurst boys, like the Howard Beach ones, killed a young man, whose only crime was that he was black and that he had wandered into their neighborhood because he had seen an advertisement for a car.

Some critics of Spike Lee's work had feared that his film would cause black people to riot. Lee responded that he knew black people better than they did and that he knew black people would not riot over his film.

Lee was right. African-Americans did not riot over the film or over any of those hate crimes in the 1980s, though some rampaged through Crown Heights a few years later and killed Yankel Rosenbaum, a yeshiva student from Australia, in what was dubbed a "pogrom."

That was during the administration of David Dinkins, the city's first and thus far only black mayor, who defeated Ed Koch in a tough Democratic primary in 1989 before beating Rudy Giuliani in the general election.

Twenty-five years after Lee's film helped usher in Dinkins' mayoralty, New York City no longer has the race problem it once did.

While Ed Koch, who passed away in recent years and was mostly beloved in his retirement, was not popular in his third term with the black community, the new mayor, Bill de Blasio, is married to an African-American woman and made good on his promise to settle the Central Park Jogger case, providing some vindication to the five falsely accused black men.

De Blasio's marriage points to the greater trend of intermarriage in the city and the country as a whole.

Our president, Barack Obama, after all, is the product of a mixed marriage.

While Bill Bratton, New York City's current police commissioner, recently felt compelled to state that his department is not "racist" after one of its officers killed Eric Garner, a black man, in yet another tragic chokehold, the city is clearly a much-improved place for minorities to live compared to the way it was in the 1980s.

There is much greater tolerance now for people of all backgrounds.

That has not stopped 33 percent of American voters recently polled by Quinnipiac University from concluding that Barack Obama is the worst president since World War II. While that result undoubtedly says more about the hyper-partisanship and polarization in the country right now than anything else, I wonder if it also reflects the insidious racism I wrote about five years ago in a piece, "You're No David Dinkins."

I have argued in the past that President Obama, a cerebral man with an idealistic, almost naive, view that law and diplomacy can settle everything, might have been better off remaining a law professor or becoming a Supreme Court Justice.

I stand by that, but there is no denying that he has had many impressive accomplishments as president.

Let us not forget that President Obama succeeded, where George W. Bush and Bill Clinton did not, in terminating Osama bin Laden. Let us not forget that Obama implemented policies that saved our auto industry and turned around our still-fragile economy. Let us not forget that he signed into law a health care bill that had evaded previous presidents going back to FDR.

Yes, President Obama has been a bit too cerebral and perceived by the bad guys as weak in avoiding confrontation with Russia, China, Iran and, until recently, ISIS.

But he has been so circumspect because he wants to avoid a paternalistic foreign policy, too large of an American footprint abroad, and the loss of American lives.

It may not get him on Mount Rushmore, but President Obama has tried to do the right thing.