By November, Black politicians will hold an unprecedented number of offices in New York City. And the likelihood of Democratic nominee Eric Adams becoming the city’s 110th mayor, and second Black mayor, will add a critical executive seat to the mix of legislative, judicial, and party positions.
Yet, there are questions about how this “new Black political class” will use its power. Can individual electoral achievements be translated into a broader agenda of community development? Is this class of politicians capable of seizing the moment and promoting an agenda of empowerment that eluded an earlier generation of leaders—or will it simply be another episode of officeholding by savvy politicos who happened to be Black?
As Amos Wilson, a former historian and social psychologist at the City University of New York, sagely cautioned a prior class of political thinkers, “as long as the Afrikan American community is relatively weak so will be its representatives, no matter how high their offices.”
The November election is poised to send Black men to the office of mayor and Manhattan district attorney. That means Eric Adams and Alvin Bragg, respectively, would join a bench of city leaders that includes state Assembly Leader Carl Heastie (Bronx), state Attorney General Letitia James (Brooklyn), Public Advocate Jumaane Williams (Brooklyn), Bronx DA Darcel Clark, and Queens Borough President Donovan Richards. Add to this the Black legislators who hold 13 of 51 seats on the City Council, 22 of 150 seats in the state Assembly, and eight of 63 seats in the state Senate.
The New York City Civil Court system’s make-up is less obvious. It sponsors about 120 Civil Court judges and 50 Housing Court judges that adjudicate money disputes and landlord-tenant issues in the five boroughs. Edwina Mendelson, the highest ranking Black judge, runs the Office for Justice Initiatives that oversees equal access to the courts. There also are the four Black congressional representatives from the city—Gregory Meeks, Hakeem Jeffries, Yvette Clarke, and Jamaal Bowman.
In combination, these figures comprise a political class of enormous talent and wield power through their offices, legislative committees, campaign organizations, and networks in the community. Yet, as a group they have tended to punch below their weight when it comes to advancing an agenda that serves the structural needs of the Black community.
They are the inheritors of the political history of Blacks in the city. It is a history of relative marginalization with roots in the mass migration to Harlem. During World War I, the Black population of New York grew by about 65 percent and fostered an enclave in the once-white neighborhood. By 1930, Harlem had about 328,000 Black residents making up 6 percent of the city’s population.
They were represented by the white Tammany Hall Democratic club under Carmine DeSapio, the ward boss and reputed gangster. It took many years before the community was represented by one of its own—that was J. Raymond Jones, the “Harlem Fox.” He was a West Indian immigrant who came to the city during the war, became active in the Carver Democratic Club, and won election to the City Council.
Under his guidance, the community nurtured its own representatives, but not necessarily an independent politics. Jones mentored a new class of young leaders that included Adam Clayton Powell Jr., Percy Sutton, Basil Paterson, Constance Baker Motley, Robert Weaver, Charlie Rangel, and David Dinkins. All would go on to hold positions in state and federal government—and Dinkins—part of Harlem’s famous “Gang of Four” along with Sutton, Paterson and Rangel, its last surviving member—would make history as the city’s first and so far only Black mayor. The story of Jones is chronicled by John Walter in The Harlem Fox: J. Raymond Jones and Tammany, 1920-1970.
Despite the emergence of this new Black political class, it remained unduly subject to white Democratic Party overseers. One reason was the vulnerability of a small community in a hostile city; another was the limited economics and education capital in the community. Also, there was the cycle of politicians coming to office during times of social crisis and industrial disinvestment between the 1960s and 1980s (a quandary that Adams will potentially inherit, as he would take power in a city that’s been hard hit by the coronavirus and whose recovery is uncertain and not entirely within the next mayor’s control).
Such were the challenges that faced the Dinkins administration in 1989. He had to contend in his single mayoral term with the fiscal limits of the 1970s bankruptcy, factory flight, unemployment, high crime rates, and divergent Black politics.
One trend was towards an African-centered community activism advanced by figures like the Rev. Herbert Daughtry and his House of the Lord Pentecostal Church in Brooklyn. His National Black United Front engaged many community organizations but failed to wed the activist agenda to the practical structures of municipal governance. (Daughtry had previously encouraged a young Eric Adams to join the NYPD and work to reform it from within).
Another trend was towards an alliance with the predominately white liberal Democrats in support of class-based remedies. The problem with the approach, however, was the disproportionate social, political, and economic power of the white allies. As Stokely Carmichael and Charles Hamilton described in Black Power: The Politics of Liberation in America, the agenda of the weaker Black camp was sacrificed to the interests of the more powerful white camp.
Eric Adams and the current political class are the inheritors of this legacy. Unlike earlier times, though, Black voters now comprise over 26 percent of the population and play a swing role in city politics. As a voting bloc, they are competitive with the city’s 33 percent white population, 26 percent Latino population and 13 percent Asian population, according to a 2010 study by the Furman Center. Moreover, they tend to vote at higher rates than the other minority groups—but still suffer from deficits of economic and educational assets.
For this new political class, the challenge is to use the tools of office in a coordinated fashion to advance an agenda of Black development. To the extent they are willing to rise to the challenge—and no doubt some of the work would be supplemental to their regular obligations—they will have a chance to strengthen their community and base of power.
Amos Wilson, in Blueprint for Black Power: A Moral, Political and Economic Imperative for the Twenty-First Century, provided useful ideas on ways to leverage political tools to spark community empowerment: “Black politics and activism without the Black ownership of and control over primary forms and bases of power such as property, wealth, and organization is the recipe for Black political and non-political powerlessness.”
What the political class must do is ignite a campaign of Black economic development. In addition to the resources of their offices, they should enlist the Black officials that head the Democratic Party in four of the five boroughs. These organizations field many district workers that organize the neighborhoods and would be useful in a movement of economic revitalization.
First, political leaders must prioritize an initiative of Black wealth-creation. They should use the district office resources and church relations to encourage people to shift checking and savings accounts to financial institutions like the Carver Federal Savings Bank. This would increase the capital available for loans to applicants for business, homes, autos, and bank cards. It would enable the historic Black bank to bolster hiring and operational resources. In turn, the bank could work with community organizations to educate people on ways to budget, save, invest, and become viable homeowners.
Second, leaders should promote a campaign for employment in the skilled fields of the growth industries. They should engage with workforce authorities to run community seminars and online tutorials and to expand opportunities for apprenticeships with municipal agencies and commercial vendors. People should be mobilized to flood the market of entry and mid-level jobs in health and hospitals, mechanical engineering, construction, communications, finance, real estate, government and the like. At the same time, leaders should continue to support the Democratic Party agenda for livable wages, trade union growth, and anti-discrimination policies.
Third, leaders should use community networks to encourage the support of Black-owned businesses. It should be aimed at directing the flow of community dollars to their own merchants and artisans. The district networks might distribute a version of an “Angie’s List” of goods and service providers. The list could be circulated on the social media of district offices, community organizations, and churches.
Most Black businesses are self-employed individuals in the skilled trades and gig economy; as such, neighborhood residents, municipal agencies, and commercial vendors should be encouraged to support their services. In turn, the providers should be pushed to upgrade their skill sets and seek chances to partner with municipal agencies and vendors.
Moreover, the mayor and city council should expand access to low-cost street vending permits beyond the current limit of 853 for non-veterans. This old quota imposed by the city through the Department of Consumer Affairs has created a permanent waiting list long closed to new applicants. It has had the effect of creating a protected market for storefronts. Black vendors should have a better shot at providing services on the main thoroughfares of the communities without being hassled. This is often a first step in the business experience and a way to recapture dollars that now flow disproportionately to immigrant merchants.
Fourth, the offices of the district attorneys, state attorney general, and borough courts should work with the county political leaders to inform people about practical legal subjects. This should include workshops and online tutorials on tenant’s rights, landlord rights, understanding insurance for renters, car owners, health care, obligations of contracts, and other legal matters of everyday life. The awareness of civil and commercial contracts is as important as the focus on police use of excessive force.
Fifth, leaders must use the bully pulpit to reinforce the Black family. In particular, there is an urgent need for attention to the mean financial standing of Black men due to generations of systemic racism. Women have endured many economic outrages as well—but the uplift of men is critical to supporting the needs of children and women, too often left to carry an undue share of the family obligation.
President Obama’s promotion of the My Brother’s Keeper Alliance and other such initiatives can be helpful in this regard. Young men are critical actors in the community and too often undervalued in the liberal Democratic agenda. City agencies that sponsor church and community programs to care for children and seniors might expand services in this area? Amos Wilson advised community leaders to “train its boys very carefully, intelligently and intensely for Manhood.”
Finally, Eric Adams should host a conference of leaders to discuss ways to build up the folk. The formation of an independent think-tank to research and develop ideas for governmental and self-help approaches would be useful. Lastly, New York City leaders should pursue a deeper alliance with the Black politicians of the state. Among the most likely collaborators are Long Island and the White Plains-Albany corridor, home to state Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart Cousins of Yonkers.
I’m sure some of these recommendations are being pursued already in different ways. But what is needed from the new Black political class is a campaign of urgency. At the same time, they must be mindful to avoid over-promising results—what is most important is to ignite a sense of confidence in the economic revitalization of the people.