Commentary Magazine


Civil Rights Cases and Racism

In a week in which accusations of racism have become the hottest topic in the public square, it was probably smart for the publishers of David Dinkins’s forthcoming memoir to trot out the former mayor of New York City for an interview with the New York Times in which he could air his personal grievances. According to the Times, the Dinkins autobiography due out in September will highlight his belief that the only reason why his 1989 victory over Rudy Giuliani was won by a narrow margin was racism. Not surprisingly, Dinkins credits the same factor for his defeat at the hands of Giuliani four years later. While nobody should expect Dinkins to accept the general assessment of his single term at Gracie Mansion as an unmitigated disaster, his inability to understand that it was his performance rather than prejudice that soured many New Yorkers on him shows that he is just as out of touch with public opinion today as he was then.

But the irony here is that his attempt to smear the slightly less than a million voters who voted against him in both elections as racists is that the most memorable event of his term in office was a riot motivated by bias. Even Dinkins has to admit that the 1991 Crown Heights pogrom against Jews in Brooklyn was a disaster for which he had to accept responsibility. It is also of particular relevance today because it spawned exactly what protesters against the acquittal of George Zimmerman want: a successful federal civil rights prosecution of a man who was judged not guilty of murder by a state court. However, the differences between that case and the death of Trayvon Martin go a long way toward helping us understand Dinkins’s defeat as well as why a civil rights prosecution of Zimmerman would make a farce of the concept.

Dinkins’s attempt to resurrect his old grudge against his successor isn’t of much interest. But the idea that the refusal of New Yorkers to embrace his political ambition with unanimity was rooted in their prejudices is an absurd distortion of the facts. As the Times notes, Dinkins was an urbane, well-dressed and well-spoken man. But he was also a political hack who inspired little affection or confidence. Many New Yorkers may have thought that after three exhausting terms of Ed Koch, they needed a man lacking dynamism. But once Dinkins took office, many repented of this sentiment as the impression of a dysfunctional, ungovernable city took hold.

The Crown Heights riot was not the only instance in which Dinkins’s lack of leadership was telling—a black boycott of Korean storekeepers was just as toxic and also illustrated the mayor’s indecisive nature. But it was the most notorious. It started when a Jewish driver ran over a black child in a car accident. An angry mob formed and violence soon brook out as racial hucksters encouraged attacks on Jews in an area in which Hasidic Jews lived near a predominantly black neighborhood. For three days, black rioters ran amuck as the police failed to act to stop the violence that was directed against Jews that has since been widely and accurately described as a pogrom—the only such instance in American history.

Many Jews were injured as homes and businesses were attacked and looted. During the course of this riot, 20 young black men surrounded a 29-year-old Australian Jewish student living in the area. They taunted him with anti-Semitic epithets and then beat and stabbed him. Before he died, he identified Lemrick Nelson Jr. as his murderer.

Eventually, Dinkins ordered in enough police to stop the violence after earlier attempts to restore order were overwhelmed by the rioters.

It should be remembered that this was an era in which leadership of the black community seemed more the function of racial hucksters such as the young Al Sharpton than figures such as Dinkins. The future MSNBC host distinguished himself during this incident by invoking anti-Semitic stereotypes about “diamond merchants” while speaking at the funeral of the child killed in the original accident and referring to a Jewish ambulance service as a function of “apartheid.”

In this inflamed circumstance, it is perhaps not entirely surprising that Nelson was acquitted of the murder by a predominantly minority jury despite the fact that he had been identified by the victim and arrested while carrying the blood-stained knife used to kill Rosenblum.

After that verdict, pressure was put on the federal government to prosecute the murderer for depriving Rosenblum of his civil rights. It was, like any second prosecution of Zimmerman would be, a form of double jeopardy. But the legal justification for the second trial was solid. The attack on Rosenblum was clearly based on anti-Semitism as it was carried out by a crowd that had been yelling, “kill the Jew” at their victim and during the course of a riot specifically directed at inflicting violence at Hasidic Jews.

The problem for those who would like to manufacture a civil rights case against the Hispanic killer of Martin is that there is no evidence that he said anything racial to the teenager. Nor, despite the attempt to interpret his repeated complaints about those who had committed thefts and acts of violence in his community, is there any evidence of racism on his part, a point that has already been made by the FBI’s failure to procure any such evidence during its initial investigation of the incident.

As legal commentators have rightly noted, the bar for a civil rights prosecution is very high. It was met in the Crown Heights case, but that was a case of mass violence rooted in bias, not a confused confrontation without witnesses.

The proof of Dinkins’s general incompetence was clearly illustrated not so much by the anger of the city about what happened from 1989 to 1993 but by the widespread and correct perception of a radical improvement under Giuliani. His successful mayoralty consigned Dinkins to the dustbin of history from which he can only hope to extricate himself via accusations that are as untrue as they are pathetic.

However, those eager to beat the drum for the Department of Justice to take on Zimmerman should find the history of Dinkins’s mayoralty to be instructive. Crown Heights provides an actual example of what happens when prejudice runs riot and how true jury nullification can lead to a successful civil rights prosecution.

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