Beyond the Pelting Pot

Ethnic Politics are Getting More Complicated

Springtime for Hevesi! That might be this mayoral candidate's mantra after Charles Rangel, the most powerful black politician in New York, tiptoed to his defense. "It's so unlike me to get involved in local races," Rangel cooed with a wink. Nevertheless, he had Alan Hevesi up to his office for a press conference last week. The occasion was Rudy Giuliani's attack on Hevesi for daring to raise the issue of racial profiling. This was the same Hevesi who had been booed at an Amadou Diallo rally. Could he now cast himself as the Jew from Queens who is also a friend to blacks?

That prospect is why Hevesi took the A train to Harlem. But he suffered a Bronx cheer when Rangel quipped that the mayor just might be attacking Hevesi in order to make him look better to blacks. After all, Mark Green, who leads in all the polls, is the candidate Rudy most detests. Green is also the politician most likely to revive the multiracial coalition that once ran the city. Seven years of Giuliani time have lulled us into forgetting that Rudy won the mayoralty after the most divisive campaign New York had ever seen, and that he's governed by virtually excluding black and Latino leaders. For the city's white minority, Rudy is the firewall.

Though the campaign to succeed him has yet to register with most New Yorkers, the racial combat has already begun. Last week, Bruce Teitelbaum, a key Giuliani operative (whose wife is a Hevesi fundraiser), threw the political season's first screwball by declaring that if Fernando Ferrer becomes the next mayor he will bring down pharaonic suffering on the Jews by empowering "Dinkins retreads" like Al Sharpton. This was racial calumny at its New York finest, since Sharpton and former mayor David Dinkins are about as close as Giuliani and Green. But all black faces look alike in Borough Park. And, though Hevesi repudiated Teitelbaum's remarks, they triggered a predictable backlash.

The old order: Giuliani operative Bruce Teitelbaum threw the political season's first screwball.
photo: Fred W. McDarrah
The old order: Giuliani operative Bruce Teitelbaum threw the political season's first screwball.

"Jews have done an amazing job of being able to promote themselves above all others . . . ," proclaimed an editorial in the Amsterdam News written by Wilbert Tatum, New York's most prolific anti-Semitic pundit. The fact that Jews hold two citywide offices and two borough presidencies, Tatum argued, was "unfair to the other groups in this city, especially Blacks and Hispanics." Here was the mirror image of Teitelbaum's slander, casting Jews as crafters of racial oppression and all but ignoring the mayor. Such reasoning is manna to Republicans, who know that tribal warfare can clobber any liberal Democrat. Divide and conquer: That's the New York way.

Today we hear a lot about the pros and cons of a black-Latino coalition, but the enduring compact between Jews and Italians is rarely scrutinized.

Why should anyone west of the Arthur Kill care about all this? Because, as America becomes a multicultural society, New York's political model is being replicated in other cities. In Los Angeles, where Antonio Villaraigosa could be that city's first Latino mayor since 1872, his Democratic opponent is a white man with close ties to the black community. In this campaign, blacks and Chicanos are on different sides, leaving the swing vote to whites. Already there are signs of a classic New York ethnic tangle.

A band of Mission Indians has placed radio ads in which a son urges his father not to vote for Villaraigosa. The Indians are seething over his opposition to casino gambling, but the ad also blames him for rising power rates, and the father speaks in the unmistakable tones of a Jewish retiree. While this is hardly the equivalent of a New York scare tactic—such as the one used in the mayoral campaign of 1969, when sound trucks ostensibly representing Herman Badillo cruised through Jewish neighborhoods blaring bongo drums—it seems familiar. Except that this time, the Jews are leaning Latino while the blacks are tilting white.

Not so long ago, the orthodox view of urban politics was that European immigrants had ceased their rivalry and banded together to oppose blacks. The new polarity was between whites and "nonwhites." In 2001, this binary is giving way to a more complex mesh, in which there are not two races but many—and a proliferation of political possibilities.

But New York is not L.A. This city is as conservative as liberal gets. In its nearly 350-year history, only one person of color has (briefly) resided in Gracie Mansion. That's not likely to change next year, if only because of the ongoing collusion of whites. The days when Jews and Italians fought the Irish for power ended in the 1960s when blacks and Latinos entered the fray. At first Jews allied with these racial minorities to form a ruling coalition, albeit one presided over by John Lindsay, the ultimate New York WASP. So potent was this alliance that Nathan Glazer and Daniel Patrick Moynihan could write in 1970 that the era of Catholic rule in New York was over. What has happened is more like joint custody, as white ethnics closed ranks.

Ed Koch was the product of a new alliance rooted in those vast stretches of the outer boroughs that might be called Whitethnica. He played the Golem protecting his people against their enemies, and Giuliani is his heir. Today we hear a lot about the pros and cons of a black-Latino coalition, but the enduring compact between Jews and Italians is rarely scrutinized. Like so much else about race in America, this bond is invisible because it is white.

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