Opinion

The Rise of Eric Adams and Black New York

It was winter in Black New York, and the last thing Eric Leroy Adams wanted to do was join the New York City Police Department.

It was the early 1980s and waves of joblessness and crime were sweeping over working-class swaths of the city. In Black neighborhoods, the Police Department, still overwhelmingly white, had become an occupying force, deepening the misery and the injustice.

Inside a Brooklyn church, the Rev. Herbert Daughtry, a veteran of the civil rights movement, told a young Mr. Adams, then a local college student, that it was time to join the N.Y.P.D. The community, Mr. Daughtry said, needed someone to make change from the inside.

“You gotta be out of your mind,” Mr. Adams recalls telling Mr. Daughtry.

On Jan. 1, when Mr. Adams, 61, is sworn in as mayor, Mr. Daughtry’s vision will be realized. Working-class Black New York, which makes up the heart of the Democratic base but has long been shut out of City Hall, will finally have its moment.

To many, the future mayor is still an enigma. The Black Democrat talks of law and order, but also Black Lives Matter. He courts Wall Street, then travels to Ghana to be spiritually cleansed. He parties late into the night alongside the rapper Ja Rule and the former Google C.E.O. Eric Schmidt. His talent and intellect are obvious. But he sounds nothing like Barack Obama.

What exactly Mr. Adams intends to do once at City Hall is unclear. What is certain for now is that Mr. Adams knows who sent him there.

New York’s Black Democratic base had endured a plague and marched for Black lives. They had kept the city going, along with municipal workers of all backgrounds, while wealthier New Yorkers remained safely at home. They had felt the rise in violence in their neighborhoods, and seen the resurgence of white supremacy under President Donald Trump. Their choice for mayor was Eric Adams.

In his victory speech in November, Mr. Adams said his election belonged to the city’s working poor. “I am you. I am you. After years of praying and hoping and struggling and working, we are headed to City Hall,” Mr. Adams boomed. “It is proof that people of this city will love you if you love them.”

New York’s first Black mayor, David Dinkins, died last year at the age of 93. A soft-spoken Marine, in his signature bow tie, he made plain he intended to serve the entire city, which he famously called a “gorgeous mosaic.” Mr. Dinkins served just one term in office after he was ousted by Rudy Giuliani in 1993 in an election fraught with racist backlash. It was a bitter defeat Black New York would never forget.

Mr. Dinkins was part of a storied tradition of Black politicians from Harlem that included Adam Clayton Powell Jr., Charles Rangel, Percy Sutton, and Basil Paterson. The political club swung Black votes in the city for more than a generation.

Mr. Adams’s pathway to Gracie Mansion runs through a different New York.

He was born in the Brownsville area of Brooklyn, among the poorest neighborhoods in the city. Later, the family moved to South Jamaica, a largely Black enclave in Queens. Like many of his neighbors, Mr. Adams grew up poor, the fourth of six children of Dorothy Mae Adams, a single mother who worked cleaning houses, and later, at a day care center.

At 15, Mr. Adams was arrested on a criminal trespass charge for entering the home of an acquaintance. He has said he was beaten so severely by police officers that his urine was filled with blood for a week.

Several years later, Mr. Adams met the Rev. Herbert Daughtry. The pastor was recruiting young Black New Yorkers to organize Brooklyn’s struggling communities as part of the National Black United Front, a Black empowerment group.

“It was a tough time,” Mr. Daughtry, now 90 years old, said in a phone interview. Mr. Adams stood out. “He was rather precocious,” Mr. Daughtry said. “He didn’t just want a job. He was concerned about the lack of progress, the gang violence, the addiction.”

Mr. Adams joined the N.Y.P.D. in 1984 and served in the Police Department for 22 years. He co-founded 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement Who Care, a group that protested police brutality. He also served as president of the Grand Council of Guardians, a statewide group of Black law enforcement officials.

He was protesting police brutality in the late 1980s when he met the Rev. Al Sharpton. Both were the sons of single mothers who had arrived in New York from Alabama.

And both men said they reveled in eschewing the snobbishness exuded by the Black elite: a small but dazzling world of the powerful — if not always wealthy — shaped by historic college fraternities and sororities, and exclusive societies like the Boulé (boo-lay) and The Links. The groups were created in the depths of segregation to help members network and uplift the Black community. Some of the organizations are over a century old.

“Me and Eric used to tease each other,” Mr. Sharpton told me recently. “I used to say, ‘You’re the guy with the patrolman’s hat and I’m the guy with the conked hair style like James Brown, and we do not care if the bougies don’t like us,’” he said. “We used to laugh about that.”

Mr. Dinkins was a member of Sigma Pi Phi, known as the Boulé. That fraternity, among the most exclusive of the bunch, counted Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as a member. Percy Sutton, once the highest ranking Black elected official in New York, belonged to Kappa Alpha Psi — one of the “Divine Nine” historically Black fraternities and sororities. Representative Hakeem Jeffries is also a member of Kappa Alpha Psi. Former Representative Charles Rangel is a member of Alpha Phi Alpha but only joined Boulé several years ago (“They never invited me” before that, he said). Vice President Kamala Harris is a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha.

“I’m not part of any of those things, you know what I’m saying?” Mr. Adams told me. “But the energy and spirit they bring, we need that.”

By 2006, Mr. Adams had risen to the rank of captain, but his public advocacy had made him a thorn in the side of the N.Y.P.D.’s clubby, white male brass. He left the department and was quickly elected to the State Senate. In 2013, he was elected Brooklyn borough president, a largely ceremonial role — but a good launching pad for a campaign for mayor.

In the decades since David Dinkins had left office, the center of Black life and political power had shifted firmly from Harlem to Brooklyn. Letitia James, the state attorney general, is from Brooklyn. Jumaane Williams, the city’s public advocate, is also from Brooklyn. Representative Hakeem Jeffries represents part of the borough, as well as a part of Queens.

Making the rise of these Black politicians possible was a decades-long shift to an increasingly diverse electorate from one that had once been dominated by white voters. Some white Democrats have proven more willing to vote for Black candidates. The changes have turned Brooklyn into a political powerhouse.

In 2013, that Brooklyn coalition, led by Black voters, sent Mayor Bill de Blasio to Gracie Mansion.

Then, in early 2020, the pandemic hit New York City, claiming tens of thousands of lives. It killed people from all walks of life, but hit especially hard in the minority and immigrant communities in the Democratic base. Every level of government, including City Hall, had failed them.

A year later, the Democratic primary included three major Black candidates. One of them, Maya Wiley, a progressive, garnered significant support. But working-class Black New York went with Mr. Adams, handing him a narrow victory. Basil Smikle,director of the public policy program at Hunter College, said they wanted someone who understood their everyday lives. “The Dinkinses and the Obamas of the world, yes it’s aspirational, we’d all like our children to grow up to be them,” said Mr. Smikle, who is Black. “But to what extent do you know how people are living?”

Mr. Adams’s political showmanship doesn’t hurt.

In 2016, when Mr. Adams became a vegan, reversing a diabetes diagnosis, he touted the diet as a way to liberate Black Americans from the history of slavery and published a cookbook.

Years earlier, in the State Senate, Mr. Adams produced a dramatized video from his office encouraging parents to search their children’s belongings for contraband. “You don’t know what your child may be hiding,” Mr. Adams tells the camera, pulling a gun out of a jewelry box. The political stunt left political insiders giggling. But it demonstrated how deeply connected Mr. Adams was to the voters he represented.

“It is comical, but let me tell you, my mom would probably be nodding her head for the entire video,” said Zellnor Myrie, 35, who holds Mr. Adams’s former Senate seat, and was raised in the district by his mother.

Much of what appears to be paradoxical about Mr. Adams is, to Black Americans, just familiar.

“All of us have been at dinner with some uncle who talks about ‘Black on Black’ crime,” said Christina Greer, associate professor of political science at Fordham University. “We know Eric Adams.”

Yet, Mr. Adams is familiar to New Yorkers of many backgrounds. They recognize the swagger of the beat cop; theblunt cadence of southeast Queens, with its languorous vowels; the hustle and ambition found all over New York.

Starting Jan. 1, he willbe mayor for the entire city. His support is expansive and includes large numbers of Asian, Latino and Orthodox Jewish voters. If he can cement this coalition, he may become a formidable force nationally in a Democratic Party hungry for stars.

Mr. Adams has also shown a savvy for courting The New York Post, announcing his pick for police commissioner — Nassau County chief of detectives Keechant Sewell, a Black Queens native — in the right-wing tabloid. Better to feed the beast, Mr. Adams understands, than let it maul you.

At his inner circle, though, is a tight-knit group of Black New Yorkers who have waited a generation for their shot to run City Hall.

Outside a public school in Brooklyn recently, Mr. Adams stood with David Banks, a veteran Black educator he tapped to serve as schools chancellor. “If 65 percent of white children were not reaching proficiency in this city, they would burn the city down,” Mr. Adams said to the enthusiastic, largely nonwhite crowd.

From the moneyed corners of Manhattan to the gracious brownstones of Cobble Hill, there is a creeping sense of shock: The new mayor is not necessarily speaking to them. Power in America’s largest city has changed hands.

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