A New York story:

Our building superintendent tells us there was another murder in the neighborhood. Over on 108th St., a 23-year-old immigrant from the Dominican Republic was rubbed out in a drug deal. The next day brings the murder of a Utah tourist trying to help his mother in the subway. Like millions of other New Yorkers, my wife throws up her hands. That’s it. We’re outta here.

Then, as if we were previewing some warped new civic ad campaign, the other New York springs to life. We return from a Saturday evening out to find our tree-lined street bathed in the loudest music imaginable. But this time it’s not the usual salsa beat. In fact, the Puerto Ricans and Dominicans who normally keep the neighbors up are shaking their fists and muttering oaths. Like something from heaven or a movie set, glorious Vivaldi is pouring forth from a sixth floor window. Loud. A barechested teenager previously seen in possession of a boom box summons the cops, who arrive after the music has stopped. It came from up there by that air conditioner, the youth plaintively tells the police. They laugh in his face.

This is what constitutes a “good” story in New York, 1990. It’s not about skating in Central Park or finding the perfect new restaurant. The theme is survival and hanging onto a few shreds of dignity in a Hobbesian world—plus a little revenge on the punks who make life so fearful. When the PBS-Lincoln Center-Vivaldi crowd starts thinking like the Queens working class it once snubbed, something fundamental has changed. But even the satisfactions of outrage are waning. In his engrossing and important book, Jim Sleeper argues that the classic New York resentment featured in popular culture has evaporated in a pool of weary cynicism: “From Ralph Kramden, the garrulous but decent ‘big mouth,’ and Archie Bunker, a quiver of barbed retorts against shrinking horizons, we have come down to a word of resignation spoken anonymously in the street:


What’s extraordinary about Sleeper’s book, though, is that I put it down feeling more optimistic about the city. Part of the reason is that he identifies inspiring examples of virtue amid the rubble. But another part is a result of who Sleeper is and what he has done. The tendency nowadays is to say that anyone who attacks affirmative action and vigorously points out where blacks have hurt themselves must, by definition, be a conservative or neoconservative. But Sleeper is not only a former liberal activist (now an editorial writer for Newsday) he is still a liberal. Liberals and black militants (“professional blacks,” he calls them) are the principal villains in Sleeper’s book. Yet no one can accuse him of becoming a Reaganite, for Sleeper refuses to Forget About It. In his wordy but passionate editorial-writer prose, he puts us right up against the wall of race and class, where we can’t ignore it any more. That is liberal in the best sense of the word.

Courting Disaster

Much of the book is a thumbnail history of how New York’s neighborhoods went down the tubes. Having edited a community newspaper in Brooklyn and covered city politics for The Village Voice, Sleeper comes by his observations first-hand. But the larger picture is vivid, too: “The confluence of radical spite, absurd legal extrapolation, and liberal disdain for white ethnics that led to forced busing, the bloating of welfare rolls, and the mau-mauing of white teachers broke the spine of New York’s civic culture,” he writes. Some critics of the book have focused on this sentence and other like it as evidence that Sleeper is roiling the rhetorical waters at a time when they’ve been roiled quite enough. It’s a valid point. But before racial calm comes honesty, and this book is a good place to start.

Earlier this fall, veterans of the Lindsay administration gathered for a reunion. The New York Times story focused on how well they had done in the private sector in the years since. Sleeper recalls a grimmer legacy. What Lindsay’s limousine liberals didn’t realize was that their alienation of white ethnics in the outer boroughs would damage New York into the 21st century. These whites didn’t have to put up with it; thousands simply fled. Their reaction was not only to crime itself, but to how it was being addressed. Sleeper establishes that the William Kuntslers of the world were more than just annoying; they actually helped destroy a delicate urban organism that had taken shape over generations. The courts, far removed from the community, were a horrible venue for liberal reform. And it wasn’t just the whites who were alienated by the response to crime. The real racism, Sleeper argues, isn’t against black defendants but against black victims, who make up the vast majority of those robbed and murdered. Like the whites, they, too, have been ignored and patronized by the Kuntslers.

This book is as much about class as race. Mario Cuomo first became well known in New York for skillfully mediating a dispute in Queens in the early seventies over a plan to put a large housing project in the white middle-class neighborhood of Forest Hills. Cuomo notes that when public housing for the poor was proposed for a black middle-class neighborhood called Baisley Park, the residents were “even more ferocious” in their opposition than the white residents of Forest Hills. For all of that, liberals were determined “to blame white ethnics for black deprivations really caused by social arrangements that benefitted primarily the liberals themselves,” Sleeper writes. More specifically, many of these same liberals turned up as the real estate sharks of the eighties.

Great Serve, Poor Service

Even if one views blaming liberals as tiresome, Sleeper goes on to do something almost no one dares: he blames blacks. This is still the third rail of American politics, and he does more than touch it; he embraces it. Yet the analysis is so discerning that only an Al Sharpton would accuse him of racism. Sleeper is unequivocal; it is that very charge that now afflicts us: “Nothing further can be gained by blaming racism as such for the mayhem engulfing poor neighborhoods.” Yes, Ed Koch played the race game with white ethnics; he “gave them the theater of their bitterness.” But two wrongs don’t make a right. White racism does not excuse black crime or black racism or black lying. In this, Sleeper gives voice to what practically every white person in New York already believes.

Except, perhaps, Mario Cuomo. For the governor, too, is viewed by Sleeper as falling prey to a portion of this double standard, implying that Reaganism excuses some of what’s wrong on the other side. “It was almost as if he were saying that tax deductions on luxury vacation homes for the rich somehow justify promotions of minority police officers who failed a test or toleration of Glenda Brawley’s [Tawana’s dissembling mother] refusal to answer a subpoena,” Sleeper writes.

He echoes the neoliberals’ favorite black thinker, Shelby Steele, who writes that “we [blacks] hold up race to shield us from what we do not want to see in ourselves.” But Sleeper is white, and he gives the argument a moral edge that blacks don’t usually appreciate hearing from whites: “Some [blacks] have stopped following Martin Luther King’s admonition to ‘burn the midnight oil’ in order to compete with their white counterparts, demanding instead a formulaic inclusion,” Sleeper notes as part of his attack on affirmative action. The argument is more convincing when it comes from blacks, but that doesn’t mean Sleeper shouldn’t have made it.

Many blacks and the handful of liberals still left in New York will no doubt react badly to this book. They shouldn’t. For instead of just criticizing, Sleeper offers some alternatives, which come in the form of names of groups almost never heard on the local news: East Brooklyn Congregations, Industrial Areas Foundation, the Science Skills Center. These are largely black organizations that have rejected the racial politics of New York City. They concentrate on housing, education, and drug prevention programs that work and that need our help.

He also finds hope in a place where people least expect it: electoral politics. For non-New Yorkers, the descriptions of the divisions between Harlem blacks and Brooklyn blacks may be too detailed. But one of Sleeper’s larger points is relevant to any big city. Sleeper proves through an analysis of recent election returns that most blacks prefer black candidates whose appeal transcends race. They may identify with some of the demagogues’ messages, but they know, at bottom, that they must work with whites. Right now, David Dinkins is looking like a loser; he seems to show more interest in tennis than in the problems outlined in this book. But because he represents a rational black response at a time when even many middle-class blacks are tempted to think irrationally, his fate is of tremendous consequence. It’s wrong to say that politicians like Dinkins can’t do much to save New York. They represent the only pocket of hope in the tides of despair now engulfing the city.

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Jonathan Alter, a contributing editor of the Washington Monthly, is a former senior editor and columnist at Newsweek, a filmmaker, journalist, political analyst, and the publisher of the Substack Old Goats with Jonathan Alter. His most recent book is His Very Best: Jimmy Carter, a Life.