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5th July
2005

First Published in The New York Sun, July 5, 2005

By Andrew Wolf

Following the assault of a young black man in Howard Beach last week, it has become the bad luck of the people who live in the neighborhood to suffer through the endless rehashing of the more serious events of 19 years ago.Other than the location and the races of those involved, there is little similarity between the two incidents.To characterize the assault of the young black man there last week as a racial incident in the same terms as the murder of Michael Griffith in 1986 simply isn’t right or fair.

The recent incident was more of a case of young men — black and white — out at 3 a.m. looking for trouble and finding it. Both the alleged perpetrator and his victim are no strangers to our criminal justice system.
Mayor Bloomberg acted quickly to address concerns, and thus scored points. That he is now happily out of town has enabled him to do his thing and get out of the way, lest he be perceived as too aggressive. There is a growing recognition that this case is not the same as the 1986 incident. Neither the black victim nor his white assailant is a figure that deserves much public sympathy.That there is the ability on the part of many New Yorkers to differentiate between the two incidents shows how much we have grown.

Those who seek to capitalize on the incident will not prosper, as C.Virginia Fields quickly discovered. Her remarks implying that New York’s intergroup relations were in a state of crisis had just about everyone shaking their heads. This is one area that Mr. Bloomberg has earned well-deserved high marks.

That Ms. Fields was so quick to condemn reveals a great deal about her strategy. She appears desperate to firm up and energize her base of black support — still nowhere near the level that Mayor Dinkins enjoyed in 1989 or 1993. This is good strategy if she wants to position herself for a run for Rep. Charles Rangel’s congressional seat,should Mr.Rangel decide to retire soon, as is widely speculated. This is a lousy strategy, however, if your goal is to get elected mayor.

If the reality is that New York has become a city with no majority, winners are those who have the ability to form coalitions.Ms.Fields always seems to be moving in the opposite direction. She caught a break when Fernando Ferrer handed back to her a significant chunk of black support that he enjoyed before he injected the Amadou Diallo case into the mayoral race. But she has failed to broaden her support base since then.
At a time when race was considered the city’s top issue, Mr. Dinkins crafted his 1989 victory by casting himself as the black leader with the guts to stand up to the more extreme views in the black community.Mr.Dinkins won high marks for his refusal to attend Black Muslim leader Louis Farrakhan’s 1985 Madison Square Garden rally.This and other efforts at reconciliation led to criticism of Mr. Dinkins within the black community. “He ain’t got no African left in him,” stated activist attorney C. Vernon Mason. “He’s got too many yarmulkes on his head.”

That is why Mr. Dinkins earned the reputation as a man who could bring racial peace to the city. That was the reason for his victory in 1989. He lost four years later because he failed to deliver on these expectations.The Korean fruit store boycott and Crown Heights riots left Mr. Dinkins with the reputation as leaning to his own racial group, a mistake Ms. Fields may have reprised last week.

Mayor Koch was handed a bad rap on race matters. Despite a personally squeaky clean record on race, he was forced to make tough decisions cutting social programs in the austere years following the city’s financial crisis. That Mr. Koch, who suffers no fools, referred to those running the programs he cut as “poverty pimps,” may not have helped his image in the minority community, but was accurate nonetheless. After 12 years of tensions and incidents, little of which can be attributed to Mr. Koch, New Yorkers turned to Mr. Dinkins.

A look back to the 1986 incident is a worthwhile endeavor. The victim in that incident was murdered — so frightened of his white pursuers that he was willing to dart into oncoming traffic on the Belt Parkway.

But as the Reverend Alford Sharpton basks in the glory of what was, up to then, his greatest media victory, the details of that “victory” are somewhat less savory.This was the case that introduced the media to the trio of Rev. Sharpton, Mr. Mason and another activist attorney, Alton Maddox. The demand of the three at the time, which led to the appointment of now-Brooklyn District Attorney Charles “Joe” Hynes as special prosecutor, was that the driver of the car that struck Griffith be prosecuted for the crime as well. It was the contention of the three activists, despite all evidence to the contrary, that the driver of the car was one of the gang that pursued Griffith, somehow getting onto the busy highway and deliberately completing the grisly task.

Mr. Hynes was appointed by Governor Cuomo to supersede then-Queens District Attorney John Santucci. The lawyer-activists refused to allow two other victims of the attack to cooperate with police unless Mr. Santucci was removed from the case. Mr. Cuomo caved in to their demands.

This strategy was repeated in a case the following year, that of Tawana Brawley, a supposed rape victim in Dutchess County. The outcome of that case was a disaster for all three. But while Messrs. Mason and Maddox ultimately lost their licenses to practice law, Rev. Sharpton leads yet another march in Howard Beach. The lesson was that these pressures work a lot better when a hate crime actually has been committed.
In the final analysis, it is the volatile mix of human nature and a high crime rate that has led to much of the racial tensions we have seen in New York. So in a perverse way the recent mayor who was least sensitive to the issue of race, Rudolph Giuliani, was the most effective in creating the relative calm we enjoy today, simply by removing much of the one great irritant in race relations, fear of crime.

© 2005 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

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