I once deliberately called Brooklyn a plantation and drew the ire of former Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz. My intention was to highlight the deep social, economic and political divisions and inequalities that still plague this borough of 2.5 million. And, since Brooklyn is a microcosm of the city, there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that New York City has become more and more like a slave-era plantation under former mayor Michael Bloomberg.
There can be no denying that today what Mayor Bill DeBlasio constantly said on the campaign trail about New York being a " Tale of Two Cities" in the best Dickensian sense one rich, privileged, affluent and protected, and the other poor, unequal, unjust, homeless and discriminated against is very real.
Now a shrill minority chorus has sprung up taking umbrage over "plantation remarks" made by the Rev. Frederick A. Lucas Jr., the chaplain of the city's Sanitation Department, at the recent inauguration of Mayor Bill DeBlasio.
"Let the plantation called New York City be the city of God, a city set upon the hill, a light shining in darkness," Rev. Lucas, Jr. said. This has created a political kerfuffle where the narrative is that the celebrity clergyman was either rude, offensive, or demonstrated very poor taste by his remarks. Mayor Bill DeBlasio has defended the right of the speakers, including Public Advocate Letitia "Tish" James, whose remarks also sparked heated criticisms.
For me the rhetoric of the inauguration is one thing. But to castigate a clergyman and a city official for speaking in language that all of us understand is quite another thing. Whether Rev. Lucas and Ms. James were insensitive or demonstrated poor taste by their remarks is a matter of personal individual opinion and so there is no right or wrong answer here. But there is a fundamental and illuminating lesson to be learned.
You see, former Mayor Mike Bloomberg has insulted, belittled, and treated the Black, Latino and minority communities in New York City with little respect during the course of his 12-year tenure. Today, the people that would lynch Messers James and Lucas routinely dismissed his bad, sometimes childish, attitude as that of a "testy mayor." Underneath all this is the outrage felt by white people that James and Lucas had the gumption to make these remarks while Mayor Bloomberg was present. They still reflexively and instinctively believe as white people that Black and Brown people must "know their place."
Criticizing a white man, especially one as rich and powerful as Mike Bloomberg, is the sacred domain of his peers living in that rarified 1 percent of 1 percent atmosphere. How dare James and Lucas speak to the mayor that way? And they are, God damn it, well, BLACK to boot! Not even white! Funny thing is that when the situation is reversed these same people fall back on the right of free speech, "no matter how objectionable," and piously affirm that this is at the root of "our democracy."
"In preaching circles, it is not a big deal," the Rev. Clinton M. Miller of Brown Memorial Baptist Church in Brooklyn told the New York Times. "I think a lot of people may not understand the symbolic use of language in the African-American religious experience."
By invoking a plantation, Rev. Miller said, Rev. Lucas was trying to "paint a picture that there's still a lot of inequality in the city."
"Clearly, he didn't mean that it was a literal plantation," Mr. Miller said. "There's been a growing chasm, not only of rich and poor, but of the rich and the average working family."
And the row over Public Advocate Letitia James' address?
Here's part of what she said:
"We live in a gilded age of inequality, where decrepit homeless shelters and housing developments stand in the neglected shadow of gleaming, multi-million-dollar condos; where long-term residents are being priced out of their own neighborhoods by rising rents and stagnant incomes; where stop-and-frisk abuses and warrantless surveillance have been touted as success stories, as if crime can only be reduced by infringing on the civil liberties of people of color."
I'm still scratching my head to see just how that was rude or insensitive. All of this happened, became systemic and endemic to New York City under Mayor Mike Bloomberg. Today, while folks carp over the Public Advocate's tone, rather than the substance of her address, there is an estimated 22,000 homeless children living in New York City and about 52,351 homeless people a population that doubled under Mayor Bloomberg.
According to the New York Daily News, "...Under the Bloomberg administration, a family that had previously been denied shelter would be turned away from a city-run shelter even on a "Code Blue" night -- if the temperature dropped below 32 degrees for more than four hours.
The city's Department of Homeless Services would review a family's application and if nothing had changed -- such as the city finding that the family had another option -- the family would be denied shelter. Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services Lilliam Barrios-Paoli changed that policy on her first week in the job.
So that's rude? Because Ms. James was blunt and painfully truthful?
So guess what?
Since former Mayor Mike Bloomberg was forced to sit stone-faced and take a rare and unaccustomed verbal slapping, Ms. James' detractors and the former mayor's amen chorus, soon accused her of lying, trying to score cheap political shots over who did what when it came to a homeless Black child.
Ok. So take win on that one. Lying? Heck man, Letitia James do not even come close Mr. DeBlasio's mentor and celebrated former United States president, Bill Clinton, who did the honors and swore him in. You see, white politicians are the rarest of humans living in America today. They do not lie they "misspeak." Ah! These guys (and some gals) would have made Josef Goebbels Nazi Germany's Minister of Propaganda look like a devout Sunday School preacher. Remember even President Barack Obama lies but white members of Congress? They routinely "misspeak."
But history will say that Public Advocate Letitia James hit the nail on the proverbial head that chilly January 1, 2014 day at City Hall. History will record that she plainly, directly and honestly. Here's what she said:
"The wave of progressive victories our city has recently enjoyed, thanks to the City Council, was in some ways inevitable. The fabric of our city, of our nation, is made strong by the untold sacrifices of so many who are left defenseless, unrepresented, unspoken for. But at some point in history, the tide must turn. The policies that make them voiceless must give way to a government that works for them, that speaks for them, that cares more about a child going hungry than a new stadium or a new tax credit for a luxury development.
"To live up to that challenge and to be morally centered in our decisions is the task before those of us who think of ourselves as the progressive wing of our city. Even as the tide turns towards progress, we do not have the luxury to rest. You see, the growing gap between the haves and the have-nots undermines our city and tears at the fabric of our democracy."
And that, my friend, is no bloody lie.