Urbanities

Maggie Gallagher
City of Brawls
Autumn 1991

Bathed in peaceful sunlight on this Sunday morning almost one month to the day after Gavin died, Crown Heights looks like a storybook neighborhood. The neat brick row houses are dressed up with freshly painted white iron fences and well-tended rose gardens. These, and the middle-aged black men in their Sunday suits and fedoras, give parts of Crown Heights a comfortably nostalgic feel, like a flashback to the Fifties. Move closer to the Lubavitcher headquarters at 770 Eastern Parkway and the aesthetic changes: The houses sit in detached splendor and pairs of Hasidic men stroll the streets. With their flowing beards, tall hats, and long black jackets flapping in the breeze, they give the neighborhood a distinctly Victorian flavor, as if here, amid nineteenth-century architecture and nineteenth-century fashion, time had stood still.

Only the cops stationed at every other corner, billy clubs in hand, remind one of the recent strife that tore this neighborhood apart, leaving one man dead, and 234 injured—the cops and the makeshift memorial to Gavin Cato that still remains, protected by police barricades at the corner of President and Utica. On the sidewalk where Gavin died, spattered paint and fallen petals bear witness to a mother’s heartache, a father’s agony. Raise your eyes to the brick wall, and the hand-lettered signs bear witness to something else altogether: THE WHITE MAN IS THE DEVIL. No JUSTICE FOR GAVIN, NO SLEEP FOR THE JEWS. Over a month has passed but the signs remain, tolerated, if not endorsed, by the neighborhood.

Crown Heights, Bensonhurst, Howard Beach, Canarsie—the litany of neighborhoods whose names are now synonyms for racial crimes is fast growing. New York is in danger of becoming, by reputation if not in fact, the city of racial brawls. In Canarsie, after the tenth bias-related incident in one month, one white woman asked helplessly, “Why now? I don’t understand it. This neighborhood, the schools have been integrated for years. It doesn’t make sense.” It is a good question: Why here? Why now? What is happening to New York’s race relations, and how can it be stopped?

Perhaps the answer is: New York is the city of races, at a time when the racial orthodoxy forged in the Sixties is breaking down. The old racial orthodoxy was built upon the bad conscience of our parents, who knew that they had tolerated, if not endorsed, racial segregation in America. They sought to make good on the promises America makes to all her children: equal opportunity and equality before the law. Blacks were just like whites and ought to be treated SO. Whites should exert themselves accordingly.

In today’s New York that orthodoxy is disintegrating. The gorgeous mosaic is crumbling in part because the white children of the civil rights generation do not feel guilty about race. They do not see how they can be blamed for the conditions of the ghetto, because increasingly, they recognize, the problem is not one of racial segregation but of cultural collapse. Militant blacks may call it exploitation and charge a white conspiracy, but middle-class Americans fail to see how they profit in any way from the crime, drug use, disorder, and welfare dependency that wrack inner-city neighborhoods. Moreover, the old racial orthodoxy has been disowned by a great many African-Americans, who claim not the right to assimilate, but the right to remain a tribe, with distinct history, culture, and values.

I am at a party in Hoboken. A woman teaches English in a nearby state college. “What’s the ethnic background of your students?” I ask, curious. “We’re very mixed,” she assures me. “About a third Hispanic, a third black, and one-third what we call ’ethnic white’—mostly Korean and Vietnamese immigrants.” Huh?

There is a logic behind labeling Koreans “white,” but it is a logic that undermines the whole concept of race-based remedies. Affirmative action—the last act of the old orthodoxy—is supposed to help the disadvantaged. But because it emerged from the civil rights movement, it was built on the assumption that one can identify the disadvantaged by their skin color; after all, skin color was the disadvantage civil rights activists were fighting against. Soon, of course, black was not the only color that counted, and soon things other than color, like gender or sexual orientation, began to count as well. For a while the system seemed manageable. But what happens if everyone is a minority? What happens in a society in which there is no majority, and therefore no noblesse oblige, no felt obligation to “help minorities” in general, but just a whole lot of competing minorities seeking to help themselves? Welcome to New York.

Racial categories in New York are being disrupted in part by the rainbow waves of immigration from Asia, India, the Caribbean, the Middle East, and South America that have swept our shores since Congress loosened immigration laws in 1965. Immigration has prevented Crown Heights from turning into another slum or an urban desert. Seventy percent of Crown Heights residents are either first- or second-generation immigrants from the Caribbean. The neighborhood, for all its problems, remains home to a goodly number of black professionals and boasts a thriving commercial district. But immigration combines with the logic of affirmative action to help break the gorgeous mosaic down into smaller and smaller pieces.

America’s old competitive streak is being transferred from individuals to minority groups. In response to such incentives, minority groups are multiplying at a fascinating pace. Why stop after adding Hispanics, American Indians, and women to the officially acknowledged list? When, for example, did people of Spanish origin stop being white, as other Euro-Americans are? But if Latinos are a racial minority, why not Italians? Why not Greeks? Why not Poles? Are West Indian blacks, who come to the country speaking English and progress toward economic equality much more quickly than African-Americans, more or less alienated from mainstream America than Hasidic Jews? And what does mainstream America have to do with the racial realities of New York?

The racial orthodoxy is breaking down because in New York, unlike the rest of the country, the militants’ aim of knocking whites from their privileged cultural position has been achieved. Whites are fast becoming and beginning to think of themselves as just another minority, especially when properly broken down into ethnic groups, the two largest being Italians and Jews—that is, the residents of Howard Beach, Bensonhurst, Canarsie, and Crown Heights.

And if everyone is a minority, and being part of a minority is the basis of entitlement, then people really can’t afford the “we’re all alike and everyone should get treated the same” benevolence of the old orthodoxy, can they? Of course race isn’t everything; being disadvantaged counts too. It counts just enough to make all the tribes claim that they are being treated worse than the other tribes, which does not breed the most harmonious race relations.

It is close to midnight. I am standing in line at the grocery store with three or four packages. A middle-aged black lady asks me urgently if she can get in front of me. “No, I’m sorry, “ I say, thinking of my boy, whom I have left alone, coughing, while I run out to the corner store for more baby aspirin and cough syrup. “Why are you whiteys like that? “ she mumbles angrily. “I’d do it for you.” I have paid and left in the time it takes for her to throw ethnic slurs at me. I don’t have time to stop and tell her (if she would believe me) that it had nothing to do with race, that I had urgent problems of my own. It was a small incident and, in my experience, an isolated one, but I thought of that woman as I listened to the voices in Crown Heights.

“If the driver had been black, you can bet he would have been arrested.” This statement, unproved and unprovable, was nonetheless insistently repeated by the black community in the aftermath of Crown Heights. Charles Hynes’s office could patiently explain that having an auto accident is not a criminal offense. It could release statistics showing that not a single one of the 22 Brooklyn drivers (ten black, nine white, two Hispanic, and one Arabic) who broke traffic laws in the course of fatal accidents last year was arrested. But the facts cannot blow away the sense of grievance, which is real and deeply felt and deeply destructive.

The racial orthodoxy is partly a matter of rhetoric and partly of etiquette, very little, any more, of public policy. The orthodox stance assumes that all of blacks’ problems can ultimately be traced to bigotry. Bad SAT scores? Racial bias in the questions. Bad schools? Racism in the history texts. Drug abuse? Racist conspiracy to ruin black neighborhoods. Crime? Understandable reaction to racist oppression.

Yes, racism is real. But if you try hard enough, you can find it everywhere. It explains everything, from the surly bus driver to the angry customer to the boss who picks on you. It explains the tests you failed, the college you couldn’t get into, the promotion you didn’t get. When whites don’t want to buy the house next to you, that’s racism. When Jews want to buy your house, that’s racism too. And, from the individual no less than the political point of view, if racism is the problem, then there is no solution. The racial orthodoxy promotes a view of the world that reinforces hopelessness and helplessness. The walls close in, and there is no escape.

Black leaders in Crown Heights trotted out the orthodox explanations to justify the rioters: The young men of the community were frustrated by poverty, racism, and unfair treatment. Hasidim, they complain, are too “aggressive,” seeking more than their fair share in housing and in public money for their social-service agencies, though a Newsday survey of public documents showed that of the 823 city-subsidized apartments built in the area since 1986, 87 percent went to blacks and less than 6 percent to whites; only one of the area’s 15 job-training programs and one of the seven senior citizens’ centers cater primarily to Jewish citizens. When the Revs. Al Sharpton and Herbert Daughtry, attorney Colin Moore, and other black leaders met with David Dinkins in the middle of the crisis, their principal demand was: Get the young black men out of jail.

The day after the riot, according to the Village Voice, one lone black woman standing in front of a torched store raised her voice in defense of an obvious truth: “You destroyed your own neighborhood, “ she berated all within earshot. “That was very smart. That’s why the black man has nothing. Burn down your own homes. Destroy the place where you live. . . . Black boys, that’s all of you. Throw your rocks and bottles. Fire your illegal guns. Spread your hatred. That’s all you’ll ever do. That’s what you are, your identity. You’re just boys in the ’hood.”

She had a point, which too few of us recognize: Nice neighborhoods are built and maintained primarily by the people who live there. Nice neighborhoods don’t require a lot of money, as the Hasidim, raising 12 children on working-class incomes, have proven. They require hard work, self-discipline, and above all the courage to put down, rather than laud, the disruptive violence of young men.

Many blacks in Crown Heights see the orderly, decent neighborhood the Hasidim have built for themselves as yet more evidence of preferential treatment, of institutional racism. George Gilder, interviewing young men in the prisons of New York about how they thought people got ahead in the world, ran into a peculiar myth. A number of different prisoners told him the tale of the Rockefeller fortune, which, it seems, was built by Jesse James. They may live in beautiful Victorian brownstones, but the blacks in Crown Heights who supported the rioters have put themselves in a similar prison: They believe the goods one community has are necessarily taken from another. The Jews must be getting an unfair share of government largesse, many blacks in Crown Heights have concluded. How else could the Hasidim have gotten what they have?

It is true that black children in underclass neighborhoods are not being given a fair shake. They grow up on welfare without fathers, playing on streets littered with debris and pornography, amid crackhouses, gunshots and 15-year-old prostitutes, attending schools in which condoms are indispensable but academic standards are not.

And it is true that the rest of us do bear a certain guilt for these conditions, though not the guilt the old orthodoxy would have us bear. In New York, the governing establishment is guilty of tolerating crime and criminals in the ghetto; guilty of caring more about the rights of squatters than the health of neighborhoods; guilty of having a deeper commitment to ideological platitudes than to human beings. Above all, we are guilty of being unwilling to impose our morals on each other—to admit the centrality of marriage or the necessity of sexual restraint. When marriage becomes just another sexual option, terminable at will, the ones who suffer the most are the children of the poor. Families of all races headed by single mothers are six times as likely to be poor as intact families. Nor are the only deprivations financial: The person most likely to physically abuse a child is a single mother; the person most likely to sexually abuse a child is the mother’s boyfriend or second husband. All children suffer, but the poor and disproportionately the black poor, are paying the highest price for the sexual liberation of the well-to-do.

“Race is the only problem in New York,” a prominent journalist insists off camera, after a recent national television appearance to discuss Crown Heights. In the mouths of certain white liberals, “Race is the only problem” is a code that roughly translated means: The only problem is the black community has gone crazy. Thus we face, for the first time, the prospect of the racism of the left. The racial orthodoxy is still powerful and the new bigotry speaks softly. But listen to cocktail-party whispers and you’ll hear some disturbing things.

Among the benevolent, the new racism takes the form of a degrading paternalism. White liberals launched the Great Society with high hopes and great expectations. Thirty years and hundreds of billions of dollars later, not a few disillusioned liberals whisper: Maybe blacks can’t take care of themselves; maybe we’ll just have to keep taking care of ’em forever.

Among the less inhibited, the new racism takes a starker shape.

“Debbie” is a young cellist who earns a living working at a downtown newspaper. She grew up in Flatbush, and made the move to Manhattan. Today she is your average bohemian New Yorker, politically correct in every way except one: Debbie doesn’t like blacks. “Don’t tell me blacks don’t have good housing,” she says. “They’re living in the houses I grew up in.” She is thinking of the large, friendly detached frame houses with big porches that dominate this section of Brooklyn, a neighborhood most Manhattanites have no idea exists. They look like midwestern farmhouses plopped down onto narrow city plots. Only today, on her old block, the houses and sidewalks are defaced by boarded-up windows, graffiti, litter tumbleweeds—the stigmata of an underclass neighborhood.

Ironically, Debbie’s new racism is an offshoot of her political correctness. People like Debbie grew up being told, and believing, that the “root cause” of the crime that creates a ghetto is material poverty produced by racism. They no longer believe this. Like Debbie they may no longer believe it because they “grew up in those houses.” They may have more sophisticated reasons; they may have heard that blacks who stay in school and get and stay married are doing very well in this country. Or they may simply be tired of being blamed for sins they never committed.

If racism and race-based poverty, however, are not the “root causes” of the underclass, then what is? Bereft of the orthodox explanation, there is an increasing danger that a good chunk of disillusioned liberals may come to believe that just as race is the only problem, race is the only explanation.

Our increasing frustration with race stems from the way the orthodoxy conceptualized the problems of blacks. If racism is the main problem, then the only solution is to transform people’s souls—to build a new man, without the instinct for tribe, without tribal rancor in his soul. At first, many hoped that this might be accomplished once and for all. Little children learn racism from their parents. If we make racism bad manners, then little children will grow up free of racial bias. And racism would disappear, once and for all.

This hope has been cruelly dashed. No one discriminates on the basis of one’s race, sex, national origin, religion, or age—not to mention the cut of one’s clothing or the size of one’s ears—more gleefully than little children. No one is more certain that his family’s way is the best way, the correct way, the only way.

Racism, the love of the like, is perfectly natural. It is tolerance that is learned, and must be arduously relearned, by each new generation. The tendency of human beings to cling to the tribe is older than history. The idea that all men are equal is a more recent, fragile flower.

The black community views the Crown Heights riots as the natural outburst of a frustrated minority. In reality, it seems to me the riot represents the natural, if deplorable, outburst of a majority frustrated at having to accommodate a rather unusual minority, and one with a very high birthrate at that. We are the majority in this neighborhood, the blacks of Crown Heights are saying. Why should we have to put up with traffic jams on Saturdays, and pay for police escorts for their holy man? Why indeed, if the only right is to assimilate into the majority? But if men are to have the right to live side by side in separate groups, then such are the difficult accommodations that must be made.

A friend of mine, a native of New York, now works in a big Washington, D.C., law firm. “I don’t want to live in New York anymore,” he tells me. “People are too race-conscious there.” I know what he means. You can’t talk about New York politics, for example, without talking about how “the Jews” or “the blacks” (not to mention the Italians or the Koreans) will vote.

In Washington, one rarely thinks about race, not because our capital city has achieved racial harmony, but because the lines between the races are firmly maintained. White Washington is an armed enclave. White Washingtonians travel in cars from virtually all-white suburbs to the little nest of marble buildings that is what they mean by Washington, D.C. The general public isn’t allowed into most of these public buildings—to enter, one must show ID to an armed guard. Once inside any federal office building, a New Yorker notices the obvious immediately: Nearly all of the professional staff are white—and almost all of the secretaries are black. But no one in Washington, my friend assures me, thinks about race. No one needs to.

In New York the races collide and mingle and fight for political spoils and cultural identity, and shop in the same stores, and to a surprising extent, live in the same neighborhoods. New York, today as always, is one vast experiment in the dissolution of the tribe. New York is pluralism on a scale never before imagined. In most places, tolerance means allowing your identically dressed and mannered neighbor with the funny last name into your country club; in New York, tolerance means allowing your neighbor to slit chickens’ throats in Prospect Park.

If pluralism can make it here, it can make it anywhere. But can it? Most of the time, it does. Even Bensonhurst is more integrated than the average suburb. And Canarsie, so-called lily-white Canarsie, is 25 percent minority. On my blue-collar block, Mar-tin Luther King’s impossible dream has come true: Hispanic and black and Polish and Irish children are out, playing together, every single day.

If real pluralism, not an endless war of countless tribes, is going to work, it is going to work here first. In this, as in so much before, New York will lead the way. But we will need a new politics and, most especially, a new attitude toward racial politics.

In New York today, racial politics are conducted largely on the symbolic level. After Crown Heights, Charles Rangel denounces New York’s clergy for failing to denounce racism, while Eric Breindel blasts black leaders for failing to condemn anti-Semitism. Will Al Sharpton shake David Dinkins’s hand in public? Will Dinkins march through Bensonhurst, or appear on the same platform with Sonny Carson? Shall we celebrate Kwanza in public schools? Was Yankel Rosenbaum lynched? (Do we score one for the Jews and against the blacks?) Or was he just plain old murdered? (No score, offsetting penalties, repeat the play.)

Symbol is important, but when symbolic gestures become the stuff of politics, racial strife is unavoidable: Gestures, alone, never satisfy. An obsession with them nurtures communities sensitive to nuance and insult, quick to take offense and quick to demand reparations. A city with a chip on its shoulder is not a comfortable place to live, for people of any color.

More than anything else, what is required to unite New Yorkers is not a multiplicity of symbols (symbols for everyone, but don’t forget we are all keeping score), but issues, just a few, that speak to the common interests of all New Yorkers. The greatest of these is crime. Racism flourishes particularly in fear, which makes people seek the safety of the tribe. Al Sharpton marched in Bensonhurst to protest racism, and the neighborhood, under attack, closed ranks against him. If he had marched to protest street violence, he might have found himself the unlikely hero of a truly multicultural crusade.

The gorgeous mosaic is crumbling. Those who seek to shore up the old racial orthodoxy—trading charges of racism and keeping track of the ever-proliferating race-based goodies—will fail. Worse, they will postpone the urgent task of building racial harmony in an increasingly racially complex city. To build good race relations in New York, we need to remember one thing: As individuals we may have as many desires as Crayola has crayons, but as citizens of a great metropolis, we want the same things: good schools, safe sidewalks, clean streets, orderly parks; water mains that don’t leak and bridges that don’t collapse. It doesn’t seem like too much to ask of the government of the greatest city in the world. The mayor who can deliver these goods will find he won’t need to play racial politics to gain—or keep—office.

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