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Divide and Conquer

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Divide and Conquer

Bill de Blasio injects racial politics into every corner of his administration. August 5, 2020
Politics and law
New York
The Social Order

If you thought that the executive order New York mayor Bill de Blasio signed on July 28 to help minority- and women-owned business enterprises (MWBEs) get more business opportunities would make all minority entrepreneurs happy, you’d be surprised. Some Asians were furious. Why? They thought that they were being excluded, at least based on the related press release sent out by the mayor’s press office.

The programs—just the latest example of the de Blasio administration’s injection of identity politics into every aspect of government—are intended to “connect Black and Latinx entrepreneurs to business opportunities, including government contract matching,” and provide “access to pro bono business consultants and mentorship networks,” according to the city’s statement. “A case-management structure will be developed to proactively identify a subset of Black and Latinx certified firms and match them to contracts,” the statement continued, and “help Black and Latinx communities to create online and in person mentorship networks for entrepreneurs and small businesses of color.”

Whatever one thinks of such initiatives, the explicit focus on blacks and Latinos, to the exclusion of other groups, was striking—and Asian New Yorkers noticed. Asians, as council member Peter Koo said in a tweet after the city’s announcement, are “sick and tired of constantly having to remind this administration that we exist.” De Blasio, Council Member Koo told me, “always talks about the ‘black and brown’ communities. He knows where his ballots come from. But this reference itself excludes Asians. The mayor has neglected us from the beginning.”

The relationship between the de Blasio administration and the Asian community, especially Chinese New Yorkers, has been bumpy from the start. In the 2013 mayoral primary, most Asians voted for then-comptroller John Liu. De Blasio, first as councilman and then as public advocate, did little in the way of outreach. In the 2013 and 2017 general elections, Chinese voters pulled the lever for de Blasio over his Republican opponents, but less enthusiastically than did other Asian groups.

During the first year of his mayoral tenure, de Blasio rarely visited Chinese neighborhoods. He attended a Lunar New Year parade in Flushing in 2015 but arrived late, and he didn’t show up at Manhattan Chinatown’s Lunar New Year parade until 2019. His predecessor, Michael Bloomberg, had made it part of his annual routine.

In March 2015, the mayor announced that he was making the Muslim religious days Eid al-Adha and Eid al-Fitr holidays on the public school calendar. He did not add the Lunar New Year, which he had pledged to make a public holiday during his campaign. Many Asians reacted strongly. More than 40 elected officials and community advocates wrote to the mayor in June of that year calling on him to fulfill his promise. He eventually responded and Lunar New Year became a school holiday in 2016.

More significantly, in summer 2018, the mayor abruptly announced his plan to abandon the Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT), the sole criteria for admission to the city’s top high schools, in order to admit more black and Hispanic students. Many Asian families—often poor immigrants—press their children to study hard for the test, even attending extra classes outside of school time. Asian students have steadily earned most of the places in the elite schools, while black and Latino students have lagged.

The plan went down badly in the Asian community. The mayor largely ignored the outcry, including a series of protests, until a year later, when community advocates were invited to a closed-door meeting with the mayor and Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza for the first time.

Asians have stood up to the mayor on other occasions, too—from his plan to place homeless shelters in their neighborhoods to his proposal to shut down Rikers Island and build new borough-centric facilities. Most recently, residents of Flushing and Chinatown held rallies to support the police and condemn de Blasio for slashing the NYPD budget.

Many see in New York City a glimpse of the nonwhite political consensus that will supposedly ensure future Democratic control of America’s cities and, eventually, the country. But a substantial portion of Asian-Americans, including recent arrivals on these shores, are turned off by progressive policies in education and public safety. Some have become Trump supporters.

After the initial announcement of the MWBE program, Justin Yu, president of Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association, and the so-called Mayor of Chinatown, sent a letter to de Blasio questioning the exclusion of Asian businesses in the new project. And I, as a reporter for the Chinese-language newspaper Sing Tao Daily, emailed to the mayor’s press office seeking comment.

The press office didn’t reply, but Xiaomin Zhao, a senior liaison at the Mayor’s Community Affairs Unit, called me to say that Asian businesses were included in the program—and that the apparent “exclusion” was the result of a misunderstanding in the press office. “Because the words ‘Black and brown’ were used in the press conference, the press office thought the programs meant only for Black and Latinx businesses,” she explained. I asked whether the Mayor’s Office realized this mistake after it received the letter from the CCBA. “No, we realized it on the day the press release was sent out,” Zhao said. She didn’t explain why they didn’t get around to correcting it until after being questioned by the community and the media, or how the press office managed to put words into the mouths of high-ranking city officials based on its own misunderstanding.

Nonetheless, Asian entrepreneurs will apparently have access to the MWBE program, after all. But the belated inclusion won’t do much to allay their suspicions of a mayor who so openly divides the spoils of office among favored demographic blocs.

Photo by David Dee Delgado/Getty Images

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