[Lew Benton sent me this note and graciously agreed to allow me to publish it. Lew served as Commissioner of Public Safety from 1988 to 1997. I believe he is the longest serving Public Safety Commissioner]
Note that your piece detailing Commissioner Dalton’s recent forum on policing elicited quite a response. And while there were some incorrect statements attributed to participants, particularly those dealing with the district attorney’s prosecutorial discretion, I think the commissioner did a damn good job.
But how to respond to racism, unequal treatment and discrimination in the criminal justice system, and allegations of police brutality is not the sole responsibility of the department of Public Safety. It is the responsibility of the entire community.
We have certainly not been immune to discriminatory practices. Here are a few high profile examples.
It was 1877, the height of the post war Gilded Age, when Joseph Seligman – fresh from masterminding the plan to refinance the nation’s Civil War debt – was refused accommodations at the Grand Union Hotel because he was a Jew. Management of the Grand Union had been taken over by Judge Henry Hilton, and Hilton’s act to bar Seligman and his family became a national cause celebre, the most public anti-Semitic incdent in America up to then.
Said Hilton, “As the law permits a man to use his property as he pleases, I propose exercising this blessed privilege, notwithstanding Moses and all his descendents object.”
Headlined the “New York Times”: “A SENSATION AT SARATOGA. NEW RULES FOR THE GRAND UNION. NO JEWS TO BE ADMITTED. MR. SELIGMAN, THE BANKER, AND HIS FAMILY SENT AWAY.” Thus this place became synonymous with American Antisemitism.
It’s 1942. Yaddo has elected to admit African American artists and writers for the first time. Among them is Langston Hughes. Saratoga Springs, by then a city, still had racially segregated accommodations, including the New Worden hotel whose bar was a favorite Yaddo watering hole.
Hughes – already a published novelist, poet and playwright – had written “Let America Be America Again” four years earlier, so it was more than ironic that Yaddo executive director Elizabeth Ames deemed it necessary to seek assurances that Hughes would be permitted in the Worden bar. Here is the October 16, 1942 response she received from the Worden’s proprietor:
Dear Miss Ames,
Replying to yours of the 15th, I do not object to Langston Hughes, the colored writer coming in our bar as long as he is in the company from someone else from Yaddo.
Cordially yours, Edward C. Sweeny
At least this past institutional racism was not anonymous.
Much more recently, Commissioner of Public Safety Ron Kim, whose physician father is a Korean- American, was the target of racial epithets anonymously published online in the “Saratogian” during a re- election campaign.
Ron publicly protested. The then publisher of the “Saratogian” said he was “… distressed that a candidate would not address an issue (privately) before going to the media… “ as if to acknowledge that he did not consider his newspaper among the media bona fides. The then editor, in more measured response, wrote that the racial slurs were “… offensive…” and she “…did not want such comments associated with the Saratogian.” Still, they were deemed acceptable for publication.
Today, of course, it is illegal to bar a Jew from a Grand Union or an African American from a New Worden bar. But it’s not illegal to be an anonymous racist or political operative who, emboldened by the internet, can hit and run without fear of retribution or sanction.
Then there is a more subtle discrimination driven, in part, by political pressure.
Cases in point.
In 1989, I began a process designed to encourage minorities and women to compete for appointment to the City’s fire and police services. At that time there were members of the community who believed, incorrectly I thought, that non-white males were unlikely to be appointed. There was and no doubt still is a dearth of good, well paying career opportunities available to encourage young minority members of the community to stay.
We set out by re-tooling the Civil Service test announcements, distributing them widely throughout the City, and offering pre-test orientation and other enticements. This was done through a committee I appointed made of the City Civil Service executive, the League of Women Voters, representatives of the police and fire services and a representative of the NAACP. The local press was supportive and profiled the initiative.
Of course, not everyone was happy. There was some internal resistance and some suggested it was not politically savvy. Yet there was some success. We were able to appoint the city’s first female firefighter and, in 1992, the second black police officer.
But in 1997, two years after I left public safety, an action was brought against me alleging reverse discrimination. The action was ultimately dismissed after I argued my own case before the NYS Division of Human Rights. What was more telling was the community response. Not one member of the then City Council spoke out in support of my action, nor was any legal assistance offered.
Instead of affirming a policy of inclusive public hiring the then council was silent. A great opportunity ignored and a subtle message sent.
In 2004, an action was brought against the city by a black man denied appointment to the city fire service by the then commissioner. The city settled the case for $100,000 in compensatory damages. I am not privy to why this young man was denied appointment and it would be irresponsible to suggest that it was based solely on his race, but the award suggests culpability and adds to the perception of a racial motive.
In the final analysis only the community at large and its institutions can address racism and its by-products by recognizing it and publicly calling it out. Otherwise I suspect we are spinning our wheels. Public Safety has a major role to play but not, by far, the only one.
Just re-read James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time. Might be a good starting point.