Charles Green and Basil Wilson, the Struggle for Black Empowerment in New York City: Beyond the Politics of Pigmentation

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Charles Green and Basil Wilson, The Struggle for Black Empowerment in New York City: Beyond the Politics of Pigmentation

New York City politics have always been byzantine. African American politics in the nation's most populous city have been even more complicated. Throughout the city's history, black people have been consistently discriminated against and excluded. Current events notwithstanding, violence has been inflicted on the Black community in an alarmingly consistent pattern throughout the course of the city's existence. The most difficult task for Afro-Americans in New York City has been the attainment of political power: either to redress past discriminations or improve their community. Kept under the control of various paternalistic coalitions of white ethnic groups, few African Americans were able to capture any positions of real power. Those matters changed somewhat in the 1930s and even more dramatically in the 1950s and 60s especially in the presence of Adam Clayton Powell. But the institutionalization of racism of those times was deeply embedded, even more so than in the overtly segregationist South. While the Civil Rights Movement destroyed "jim crow" and led to legislation that transformed the South, in New York City African American politics remained under the supervision of ethnic coalitions formed in the Thirties and Forties. Part of the problem has been the inability of Blacks to form coalitions with other disenfranchised groups such as the large and diverse Hispanic population. Then too there has been tensions within the Black community between Afro-Americans and Afro-Caribbeans.

Much of that appears to have changed now that the city has elected its first Black mayor, David Dinkins. Charles Green and Basil Wilson's book came out before the election took place but much of the foregoing comments are covered by them in a readable and informative way. The strength of this book lies in its timeliness. Unfortunately it is also a weakness. The perspective and ground on which this volume stands is one of current affairs and, given the rapid changes taking place today in the Black community, a book such as this can quickly become dated. Nonetheless, there are two areas that deserve serious attention: the first being the analytic framework within which the authors dissect the political history of New York City. Green and Wilson see three periods of white ethnic hegemony: Irish Hegemony (1880-1932), Ethnic Symmetry (Irish, Jews and Italians, 1933-76), and White Backlash (1977-1989). With the election of David Dinkins, one could say that a Period of Coalition is under way but that remains to be seen. The typology that Green and Wilson present is very useful for understanding the labyrinthine politics of the city. Indeed one wishes for more description and depth but the authors were apparently aiming for timeliness rather than thoroughness. That unfortunately prevented them from making some useful and pertinent analyses of why the state of Afro-America in New York City is where it is presently. For example, the authors in their historically organized second chapter note that in the Thirties "the black working class responded more enthusiastically to black nationalist appeals than to the class analysis of the CPUSA. …