Academic journal article The Historian

"Law and Order" at Large: The New York Civilian Review Board Referendum of 1966 and the Crisis of Liberalism

Academic journal article The Historian

"Law and Order" at Large: The New York Civilian Review Board Referendum of 1966 and the Crisis of Liberalism

Article excerpt

In November 1966 the politics of "law and order" engulfed New York City, where street crime was rampant and race relations remained tense following the Harlem Riot of 1964. (1) At stake was a municipal referendum with national implications. The referendum proposed to abolish the civilian review board established by newly elected Mayor John Lindsay to provide more effective oversight of the New York Police Department (NYPD) and promote better police-minority relations. The image that dominated the campaign, however, came from the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association (PBA), which in opposition to the review board distributed a provocative campaign poster. Employing racial, class, and gender code to tap into widespread fears and anxieties, the poster showed a young middle-class white woman exiting nervously from the subway and emerging alone onto a dark and deserted street. "The Civilian Review Board must be stopped!" read the accompanying text. "Her life ... your life ... may depend on it." The reason, it added, was that a "police officer must not hesitate. If he does ... the security and safety of your family may be jeopardized." (2)

The message was pointed and persuasive. A WCBS-TV poll taken on 4 November showed that a clear majority of those surveyed felt that the review board would hinder police performance. Four days later, buoyed by a near-record turnout--over two million voters cast ballots, more than in the 1964 presidential race--the referendum passed by an almost two-to-one margin. Of the five boroughs, only Manhattan narrowly voted to retain the board. (3) In the nation's largest and arguably most progressive city, which two years earlier had given Lyndon Johnson a decisive victory and sent Robert Kennedy comfortably to the U.S. Senate, a measure identified by supporters as an extension of the civil rights cause and endorsed by every prominent liberal politician and organization had met decisive defeat.

The outcome was not unexpected. (4) But it was nonetheless a stunning victory for conservatives and a stunning blow for liberals--a clear indication of the divisions and disenchantment within their own ranks. The review board referendum, contested under the spotlight of the nation's media capital, reflected the growing perception among urban whites that personal security was now a critical issue. The election also highlighted the increasing unwillingness of local Democrats to accept the racial liberalism of the national party. And the result reinforced trends from across the nation, including California, where Republican newcomer Ronald Reagan handily defeated incumbent Democrat Edmund Brown. (5) By 1966 the politics of "law and order" had exposed serious cracks in the New Deal electoral coalition--cracks that would widen significantly by 1968.

But when, precisely, and why, exactly, did urban white voters begin to desert the Democratic Party and embrace the Republican Party--or abandon electoral politics altogether? The question has generated a healthy debate among scholars and commentators. Thomas and Mary Edsall, authors of Chain Reaction, identify the critical moment as the 1960s and the main cause as the white reaction to the civil rights movement and Johnson administration programs. The Democratic Party, they and others contend, then compounded the crisis by responding to the grievances and demands of a black militant minority while ignoring the fears and desires of a white "silent majority." (6)

Historian Thomas Sugrue argues, however, that urban antiliberalism predated the Johnson administration and determined the "politics of race and neighborhood" in the North in the 1940s and 1950s. In The Origins of the Urban Crisis, he details how opposition to racial integration dominated local elections even in Detroit, where liberal organizations such as the United Auto Workers presumably held sway. Therefore, the conservative backlash of the 1960s was not, according to Sugrue, "the unique product of the white rejection of the Great Society. …

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