Blacks in New York: Making Waves and History in the Big Apple

Article excerpt

NEW Yorkers often say, "If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere." That sentiment possibly has never been truer. The city's 2 million Black residents--spread out within the five monstrous boroughs of Manhattan, the Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn and Staten Island--have proven time and again that they are a resilient group who can take a blow and live to fight another day. Bolstered by a near-double digit increase in population and the election of the largest number of Black local government officials in the city's history, African-Americans have made unprecedented inroads into New York's power structure, assuming new and powerful roles in politics, business and culture. In the last decade, the longest Bull Market in stocks in U.S. history created an unprecedented demand for Black workers from the private sector, and record amounts of inner-city assistance from the the government. In the late '90s, Black unemployment reached a historic low, and programs like President Bill Clinton's Empowerment Zone in Harlem spurred a renewed interest in the uptown area not seen since the Renaissance period.

But if there are gains, there are also disappointments. Drive through parts of any borough and it's easy to see that many areas, particularly those populated by African-Americans, continue to be poverty-stricken. "New York's a big city," hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons says. "If you live in a penthouse on Central Park, it's not so bad. If you live in the communities where most of us are concentrated, there is a lack of support systems, bad education and a lot of suffering. It's like two worlds here."

While some Blacks in the city admit that the September 11 attacks have slowed down the progress and have the potential to permanently halt any trickle-down effects to the poor, they are confident that African-Americans in the Big Apple, in the midst of the largest concentration of economic, communications and cultural power in the world, can regroup and take the race to new heights. And in considering this story, it is important to remember that Blacks in New York City include Wynton Marsalis at Lincoln Center, Kofi Annan at the UN, Kenneth I. Chenault at American Express and Merrill Lynch's top man, E. Stanley O'Neal on Wall Street.

"A significant number of Blacks have made it," says Medgar Evers College President Dr. Edison O. Jackson. "But a good number of Blacks have not made it, and that number is growing. They are hidden from the cameras; they are hidden from the newspapers; they are hidden from our seeing them in our daily work and our world, but they are there. They are our hidden and forgotten society. Our challenge in the city is to uplift them as we have been lifted."

According to the 2000 Census, roughly 25 percent of New York City residents are of African descent, the largest in any American city. That number increased dramatically in the 1950s and 1960s, with a large inflow of Caribbean immigration. Today, New York is home to hundreds of thousands of immigrants of African descendants from all over. "We are coming here from nations that govern themselves and look like us," says East Flatbush city council member Yvette Clarke, a native of Jamaica. "That comes with its own spirit of Africanness, of Blackness, of empowerment, of heightened consciousness and awareness that then translates into public policy."

But in recent years, tensions between African-Americans and some residents who were born in Africa or in the Caribbean have increased. Rep. Major Owens of Brooklyn charges that outside forces are working overtime to divide minorities of color within the city. "It was not a problem until the last couple of years," Owens says. "A discovery was made in the Republican Party that it had to stop ignoring the Black community. So it adopted a strategy of divide and weaken ..." Rep. Owens says some people tried to divide African-Americans and other Blacks in his last election. …