The David Dinkins legacy has always been complex, ripe for revision and misunderstanding. New York City’s first and only black mayor, who died yesterday at the age of ninety-three, served for just a single term, from 1990 through 1993. It was a period of economic and racial tumult for the city, when just about anyone left of center was forced into a defensive crouch.
Dinkins, courtly and well-dressed, was easy for some to vilify. For conservatives, the Harlem Democrat was indecisive and squishy liberalism personified, unable to tame rising crime and serving as a forgettable bridge between two mayors who loomed far larger in the popular imagination, Ed Koch and Rudy Giuliani.
For leftists in 2020, it’s not particularly difficult to dismiss Dinkins as another establishment, vaguely neoliberal Democrat who expanded the police force, tried to draw close to real estate and business elites, and failed to arrest the rising income inequality we grapple with to this day.
But that would not be exactly fair to a mayor who was very much of his time and place, who had his ambitions checked by reactionary forces and a faltering economy. Dinkins, a former Democratic Socialists of America member who kept a picture of Paul Robeson in his office when he was Manhattan borough president, quietly poured billions into rehabilitating dilapidated housing, expanded school hours to help poor students, and funded assisted housing for the mentally ill.
But though Dinkins campaigned on anti-austerity aspirations, he was forced to implement devastating cuts when he took office. In his first budget, he slashed spending on education, health, housing, education, and social services for children, the elderly, and the poor. Despite raising taxes by $800 million, the largest increase in city history, under Dinkins the city government was constricting instead of expanding.
For a figure who as late as 1990 was praising Eugene Debs and quoting A. Philip Randolph and Michael Harrington, it was a stunning reversal that showed how trapped many progressive executive officials felt in an era of austerity and the especially difficult context Dinkins found himself in.
Winning with a coalition of black Americans, organized labor, and other progressives, Dinkins entered office at a moment when an incendiary local real estate developer named Donald Trump was initiating a racist campaign against the Central Park Five, and a black teenager, Yusuf Hawkins, had been shot to death by a white mob in Bensonhurst.
New York City, at the dawn of the 1990s, was slowly rebounding from the fiscal crisis more than a decade earlier. Still, it remained a city on the brink, with rising homicide rates and racial resentment that had been stoked by the man Dinkins defeated in the 1989 Democratic primary, Ed Koch.
Koch would enjoy a far grander reputation in the local media, despite a series of corruption scandals and a general disregard for the lives of gays during the AIDS epidemic. Koch, like Giuliani and Trump, was a master of white grievance politics, gleefully clashing with civil rights leaders and aligning himself with pernicious police unions, ignoring the everyday New Yorkers suffering in their wake.
By today’s standards, with police defunding movements gaining steam, Dinkins would not seem much better — he fought for a new tax to hire more cops. It must be remembered that more than two thousand New Yorkers could be murdered in a year, the crack epidemic was ongoing, and most voters were desperate for answers.
Unlike Koch and Giuliani, Dinkins did not believe in unfettered police power. Like the last liberal to lead New York City before him, John Lindsay, Dinkins argued civilian oversight of the NYPD was required to provide some kind of check on their terrifying clout.
In the 1960s, Lindsay had tried and failed, his civilian policy oversight board defeated at the polls, where police unions waged a ferocious campaign to ensure the referendum died quickly. “I am sick and tired of giving in to minority groups with their whims and their gripes and shouting,” the head of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association declared at the time.
Subsequent mayors avoided the issue altogether, blindly praising the overwhelmingly white police force and moving on. Dinkins knew he had to do better. In 1993, as he was seeking reelection, Dinkins successfully created the Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB) to conduct investigations and prosecutions of police misconduct.
For the first time, the all-civilian CCRB provided some recourse for those who had been brutalized by police.
The story of Dinkins cannot be told without Giuliani, who once enjoyed a level of undeserved bipartisan regard from New York’s pundit class. The Giuliani mythos began in the 1980s, when he prosecuted mobsters and enraptured a generation of journalists attracted to tough guys and Manichean narratives.
Unlike Koch, Giuliani pitched himself as a good government revanchist, able to manage a city scandal-free while keeping minorities in check. Dinkins narrowly defeated the Republican Giuliani in 1989 but a rematch was always coming: Giuliani only needed to nudge a few more white voters into his corner and victory would be assured.
The New York City of the early 1990s was extremely racially polarized. Traditionally, more conservative white ethnics in the outer boroughs had dominated municipal primaries. Only Lindsay, a liberal Republican who forged close ties with black voters, and Dinkins were able to overcome this resistance.
Though many of the cognoscenti tut-tut at Giuliani’s transmogrification from America’s mayor into President Trump’s maniacal and slobbering lawyer, those who pay close attention understand that the Rudy of today is not so different than the younger, slimmer version who faced down Dinkins for a second time in 1993.
That Giuliani was as well-schooled in the politics of racial resentment. In 1992, after Dinkins pitched the idea of civilian oversight of the police, Giuliani led a riot of off-duty police officers at City Hall. Traffic was blocked on the Brooklyn Bridge and journalists were injured. “He never supports us on anything,” a police officer complained about Dinkins. “A cop shoots someone with a gun who’s a drug dealer, and he goes and visits the family.”
No matter what Dinkins did for police, he could never, as a black man, earn their respect. Compounded with the criticism he drew for his slow response to the Crown Heights riots in 1991, in which blacks and Orthodox Jews clashed in Brooklyn, Dinkins could not quite retain the coalition that brought him to City Hall.
In November 1993, Giuliani bested Dinkins by about 3 percentage points, though he only carried two out of the five boroughs, Queens and Staten Island. Giuliani’s margin of victory came from Staten Island, where white conservatives handed him a stunning 83 percent of the vote. To this day, Staten Island is the only borough in New York City that has supported Trump in both presidential elections.
In the New York Times, Dinkins was described as someone who “suffered by comparison with the Gullivers bestriding him,” in reference to Koch and Giuliani, the ludicrously belligerent mayors who hemmed Dinkins in on both sides. That is not quite right. Koch and Giuliani could be quite small. And Dinkins, more importantly, was no Lilliputian.