In the wake of Congressman Joe Wilson's recent "You lie!" flare-up, which interrupted President Barack Obama's speech before the Congress, Maureen Dowd of The New York Times and Tim Rutten of the L.A. Times wrote thoughtfully about the ignoble history of South Carolina on matters of race.
Wilson's outburst culminated a summer of racially tinged incidents, from Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates' arrest at his home in Cambridge, Mass., to the birther movement and the "racist-in-chief" proclamations at tea parties. However, these events got me thinking not about South Carolina, which deserves a special citation as a bastion of racism, from the days of slavery advocate John Calhoun to the presidential run of Dixiecrat Strom Thurmond, but about more recent history in the North involving another pioneering African-American chief executive, former New York City Mayor David Dinkins.
There are more than a few parallels between Dinkins and Obama. For one, both men have a courtly elegance to them. Dinkins did not drop his vowels the way Obama sometimes does in certain settings, and his speaking style was never compared to that of the Rev. Martin Luther King, but Dinkins was nonetheless a grammarian, who, like Obama, often sounded like the seasoned lawyer that he was.
In the lead-up to the 1989 mayoral primary, some supporters of Mayor Ed Koch, the Democratic incumbent, argued that Dinkins' financial plan would "bankrupt" the city. Such language bore elements of the rhetoric used at recent town hall meetings where a number of attendees have criticized Obama's "government takeover" of health care. While no one referred to Dinkins as a Socialist or Fascist, the rhetoric in the late 1980s suggested that Dinkins, like Obama, was not competent to balance a budget. That it was bruited about around the time that Rev. Jesse Jackson, the most well-known black politician back then, was having financial problems at his Rainbow/PUSH organization served only to heighten sensitivities.
Yet many New Yorkers may have been motivated not so much by racial animus, as is the case today with tea party attendees holding up posters of Obama as a witch doctor, as they were by memories of the city's fiscal crisis in the mid-1970s when Mayor Abe Beame, an accountant who happened to be Jewish, presided over Gotham.
There are other parallels between Dinkins and Obama. Dinkins won a bruising primary campaign against Koch, the three-term Mayor, just as Obama battled Hillary Clinton, a party veteran, for months before capturing the Democratic nomination for president. In the general election, Dinkins defeated a maverick Republican, Rudy Giuliani, just as Obama defeated a maverick Republican in John McCain.
But the situation in New York in the late 1980s was very different from that in the U.S. now.
New York City endured a spate of hate crimes in the 1980s, beginning with the case of Michael Stewart, the subway graffiti artist, who by most accounts died from asphyxiation after the police got him in a chokehold. Many other incidents followed, from the shooting of Eleanor Bumpurs, an elderly black woman, suffering from health problems, who was killed by police in her Bronx apartment after she allegedly brandished a knife; to subway gunman Bernard Goetz's clash with a group of black teens; to the rape and beating of a Central Park jogger; to Howard Beach, where several African-Americans, whose car had broken down, wandered into a white neighborhood before one was beaten senseless and another chased to his death on the Belt Parkway; to the Tawana Brawley hoax, in which a young black woman claimed that white men spread feces over her and raped her, though no evidence of penetration existed, and she had made up a similar story not long before.
All of these events created an atmosphere of searing racial tension in New York.
Tom Wolfe would capture the nuances of race in New York at this time in his 1987 novel, Bonfire of the Vanities, in which an African-American honors student is killed by a bond trader, a Master of the Universe, in what is touted as a hate crime.
Spike Lee would address such crimes and police brutality in Do the Right Thing, his 1989 film, that came out in the heat of the primary between Koch and Dinkins and within weeks of the Bensonhurst case, yet another incident where a group of black teens, answering an advertisement for a used car, arrived in a white enclave in Brooklyn only to have one of them, Yusuf Hawkins, gunned down.
After all these wounds, the city needed an African-American to heal it.
Ironically, Dinkins, a one-term mayor, was undone at least partially by his missing-in-action response to two other racially tinged events: the Crown Heights riots, where Yankel Rosenbaum, a rabbinical student, was murdered by blacks, and many Jewish stores were looted; and a protest outside a Korean grocery store, where an African-American was suspected by store owners of shoplifting, a situation exacerbated by a language barrier. In the first case, Dinkins was perceived to have waited too long before sending in the police; in the second case, he allowed the Korean business to be boycotted for days before he decided to purchase groceries from the Koreans as a solidarity gesture for a wronged family.
None of this is to suggest that Barack Obama is going to be a one-term president. He has masterful skills as a politician that few, including Dinkins, have. He built up an organization whose fund-raising and operational prowess were unmatched in the last election. And he is governing the country at a very different time in its history from the late 1980s. Right now, most people are more concerned about their economic futures than they are about race.
To show how far we have come, Dinkins supported Hillary Clinton over Obama in the Democratic primary last year.
Still, if the tea party vitriol, the firing of green jobs czar Van Jones and the standing ovation that Cambridge Police Officer James Crowley received at a policemen's convention in Long Beach are any indications, race remains a more insidious and pervasive issue than some of us realized and may have a greater impact on Obama's fate in 2010 and 2012 than it did in 2008.