Jo-Ann Mort has a piece in TPM Cafe about identity politics in Brooklyn’s 11th Congressional District. Mort lives in the district, as do I. But she comes to an entirely different conclusion about the race than I do.
A little background: the 11th District was Shirley Chisholm’s seat, and was once a majority-black district created under the Voting Rights Act and anchored by the neighborhoods of Flatbush and Crown Heights. The district lines have since been redrawn to include areas such as Park Slope, Windsor Terrace, Cobble Hill, and my neighborhood, Kensington, which were once down-at-the-heel neighborhoods and have since gentrified or are gentrifying.
The current representative is Major Owens, who has been in the seat forever and is not running for re-elections. Owens would like his son, Chris, to take his seat. Also in the running are Councilwoman Yvette Clark, State Senator Carl Andrews and Councilman David Yassky, who is the only white candidate in the race. Andrews has been endorsed by Eliot Spitzer and David Dinkins.
Here’s where the identity politics come in: the black community is fearful of losing a “black seat” — Shirley Chisholm’s, for Pete’s sake — and Yassky has been accused of trying to benefit from a split in the black vote. Mort says that this kind of identity politics is toxic, which I agree with, to a point:
The fact is that Yassky has been an effective, thoughtful city councillor and would probably make his mark in Congress. He is the strongest of the candidates, based on the positions he’s put forward and on his priors. The onus is on Yassky, no doubt, to show that he is not simply ‘carpet-bagging;” he needs to prove that he will represent the entire district and especially provide a voice to those in the district who are less well off and more in need of an effective advocate in Congress.
But the way to challenge him needs to be on the issues–it can’t simply be that he is White and it is a “Black” seat. It may work in a congressional setting and someone other than Yassky may win the seat. But if the race is run and won on the argument of Black versus White, whoever wins that seat will have weakened-rather than strengthened the progressive forces in New York City.
All very well and good, but Mort ignores the other issues, the non-racial ones, which take this whole thing out of mere identity politics. Yassky’s got other strikes against him in running for this seat. For one, he lived outside the district until he decided to run for the seat, so he has to deal with the “carpetbagger” charge. In addition, he has an enormous war chest, mostly funded by the finance, insurance and real estate industries.
And then there’s the little matter of Yassky’s apparent coziness with Bruce Ratner, the developer of the controversial and ugly-ass Atlantic Yards development in Downtown Brooklyn. Part of the deal with Atlantic Yards was that it was supposed to create jobs, real jobs, for city residents. The politics of that development have also been racialized, with the supporters of the project portraying opponents as wealthy white NIMBY types who don’t want jobs or affordable housing for poor minorities. But the bill that Yassky supported shifts the responsibility and cost for job creation from Ratner to the City. Which is no surprise, considering that sports stadiums — the raison d’etre of Atlantic Yards (the affordable housing was a deal-sweetener) — are pretty much a big boondoggle.
Yassky’s also not above making a blatant pitch to Jewish voters on the matter of Israel. A commenter at Steve Gilliard’s blog caught him taking down the “Defending Israel” tab on his website, though you can see the tab (though not the content; I’m not that technically proficient) in this cached version. Perhaps he realized that playing up the Jewish angle wasn’t the best idea in a majority-black district that includes Crown Heights.
Here’s how I see it: I’m a white woman who owns an apartment in a neighborhood that is rapidly gentrifying. My interests are not going to be lost if the white guy doesn’t win. In fact, given how much new high-end development (three new luxury condos within spitting distance of my apartment) is going on, I’m suspicious that the white guy who’s a little too cozy with the real estate industry might not have the best interests of the actual residents at heart.
My interests are not going to be lost, but what about those of the black and Latino residents of the district? Remember, the district was created in the first place to increase black representation in Congress. It’s still a majority-minority district. If this guy wins only because the black vote gets split among three candidates, will he be able to represent the district without rancor? Will race be an issue every two years? Will his real-estate interests start eyeing the neighborhoods east of Prospect Park as targets for gentrification and yet more luxury condos?