New York City mayor Bill de Blasio’s most revealing appointment to date shows how far he intends to infuse race consciousness into every aspect of city government. He has selected Maya Wiley, the head of a racial-advocacy organization, to serve as counsel to the mayor. This important position has traditionally encompassed both policymaking and the legal nitty-gritty of urban governance. The mayor’s counsel advises him about the scope of his power, oversees new initiatives, drafts executive orders, and vets mayoral appointments, among other duties. De Blasio’s choice of Wiley portends an administration that detects racial discrimination in every corner of public and private life and that feels empowered to eradicate it.
After working on race issues for the Open Society Institute, the NAACP, and the ACLU, Wiley founded the Center for Social Inclusion in 2002. If you’ve never heard of the Center for Social Inclusion, you are not alone. A search of major newspaper databases dug up barely a half-dozen mentions of the organization over the last decade. CSI’s main theme, however, is drearily familiar: Americans don’t talk enough about race and structural racial injustice. Wiley brought that message to a May 2013 reception at music mogul Russell Simmons’s “New Beverly Hills Home,” in the words of a CSI press release. In addition to calling for more race talk, Wiley argued against “race-neutral policies,” alleging that they “block opportunities . . . for communities of color.” In July 2013, the Congressional Black Caucus invited her to testify at the House Democratic Steering and Policy Committee on Race and Justice in the aftermath of the Trayvon Martin case. She called for government programs that incorporate the “mind science on implicit bias”—a largely bogus body of work that tries to tease out in lab subjects hidden discrimination against blacks.
According to CSI, “structural racial inequity” begins when banks choose where to open branches and whom to lend to, and businesses locate where taxes are low and workers plentiful. It claims that “right-wing rhetoric has dominated debates of racial justice” for over 25 years. After yet another frenzied media effort to portray a shooting of a black male by a white man as the typical way that black men die, this assertion is particularly ludicrous. But it ignores as well the elite’s constant invocation of racism as the cause of racial inequalities and the taboo against acknowledging the central role of family breakdown, educational apathy, and gang culture in driving those inequalities. Perhaps not coincidentally to Wiley’s own activism, her father, George Wiley, founded the National Welfare Rights Organization in 1967, which sought to remove all stigma from the dole and which taught recipients to think of welfare as an unconditional entitlement.
Recent mayoral counsels have been steeped in the complicated arcana of regulatory law and administrative procedure. Anthony Crowell, now the dean of New York Law School, came to the office in 2002 from the City Law Department’s Tax and Condemnation and Legal Counsel divisions, where he drafted laws and regulations. The New York City Bar Association had already recognized his contributions in 2001 by conferring on him its Municipal Affairs Award for outstanding performance as a city attorney. Crowell’s successor in 2012, Michael Best, had directed the Mayor’s Office of Contracts under Mayor Giuliani and had served as General Counsel to Mayor Bloomberg’s Education Department. In that latter capacity, he oversaw the Education Department’s labor relations, audits, investigations, and ethics compliance. In 2009, Harvard Law School named Best a public-interest fellow based on his work for the city; in 2010, he received a city award for outstanding legal service. Giuliani’s counsel, Dennison Young, had not worked in city government before, but as the Number Two lawyer in the Office of the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, he had collaborated closely with city officials and the New York Police Department in prosecuting gang crime, experience he put to use in managing the historic merger of the Transit and Housing Police with the NYPD.
Wiley’s lack of any hands-on contact with city government is not necessarily disqualifying; she may well be a quick learner and a savvy delegator. Still, it would be reassuring to think that there were some zone of City Hall where “social justice” concerns take a back seat to simple competence. In announcing Wiley’s appointment, de Blasio put that hope to rest. He chose her, he said, because she is “one of the fiercest advocates for equality and social justice.” He expects that she will “constantly reinforce our focus on fighting inequality.” No one would have supposed that de Blasio needs such reinforcement; he has never hidden his megalomaniacal belief that he has been called, in his words, to solve the “inequality crisis gripping this city.” Arguably, it is challenging enough to keep New York’s thoroughfares clean and graffiti-free, to ensure that residents and workers feel safe to walk about every neighborhood, and to wrest from New York’s massive government greater efficiency and responsiveness.
After less than two months in office, however, de Blasio has apparently concluded that those homely duties are so easily discharged that he can pursue his aspirations for greater things. (As for the basics of governance, more than a week after de Blasio announced Wiley’s appointment and that of two other commissioners, the list of administration officials still has not been updated in response.) De Blasio’s choice of an opponent of race neutrality to advise him means that even street cleaning will be viewed through a racial lens, however, putting the lie to his promise of “one New York.” Let’s hope that as de Blasio takes on “inequality,” his counsel at least occasionally reminds him that his office is a constitutionally limited one.