Strikingly little attention has been paid over the years to the substance of Mayor Michael Bloomberg's record in terms of civil rights. While concerns continue to be raised about cases of alleged police brutality, and while many believe there needs to be a stronger, more independent Civilian Complaint Review Board to consider cases of reported police misconduct, most New Yorkers credit Bloomberg with improving New York’s "racial climate" from the more racially charged atmosphere that prevailed during the Giuliani administration. Indeed, a Quinnipiac University poll conducted last year found that even though two thirds of New Yorkers say police brutality is a "very" or "somewhat" serious problem, a similar margin approves of the mayor's handling of race relations. Among African-American respondents, approval as to race relations was measured at 55 percent.
Beneath such attitudes, of course, are substantive civil rights issues, and the mayor’s record raises questions as to many. In what might be one sign that the administration is not eager to discuss civil rights, City Hall did not respond to a request from Gotham Gazette to identify the key civil rights accomplishments of the mayor’s current term.
Segregated New York City
Despite daily references to the "diversity" of New York, the city remains one of the most residentially segregated cities in one of the most residentially segregated major metropolitan areas in the country. Residential racial segregation underlies virtually every other major societal disparity that exists, including disparities in education, health care and employment. But the administration has not developed concrete policies to reduce segregation. Indeed, the mayor’s "New Housing Marketplace" makes no reference either to the existence of residential segregation or to any strategy targeted at overcoming that segregation.
The mayor has not pushed for mandatory inclusionary zoning, which requires developers to include affordably priced apartment in their development. Some advocates believe this, when combined with affirmative marketing, can be crucial in combating segregation. The effectiveness of voluntary inclusionary zoning, which the mayor has embraced, is the subject of ongoing debate.
Existing city policy actually perpetuates segregation in ways similar to what courts have found to be illegal in cases involving other jurisdictions. Every time a new development brings apartments to market, current residents of the community district in which the development is located receive a preference for 50 percent of the new homes. Because so many community districts are highly segregated, the preference process, by definition, skews opportunities, perpetuating more segregation than would be the case if openings were equally open to all.
Access for People with Disabilities
As with residential racial segregation, nothing in the mayor’s New Housing Marketplace targets barriers to accessibility for the hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers with disabilities.
Ironically New York City has the strongest Human Rights Law in the country. The disability provisions -- applicable to employment, housing and public accommodations alike â€“- are especially robust and distinctive. Despite the legal guarantee that people with disabilities will have equal access to public accommodations like stores and restaurants, one can find on virtually any block in the city numerous non-compliant businesses. In contrast to the "sweeps" that have been conducted against other lawbreakers, the city has not -- either through its Human Rights Commission, Law Department, Department of Buildings or otherwise -- tackled the massive problem of continuing inaccessibility.
In the realm of taxi transportation, too, the administration resisted entreaties to require a conversion of the fleet to all-accessible cabs (London's taxis have all been accessible for years). The city regulates the taxi industry and has required some technological innovations, such as the ability to accept credit card payments. However, even thought regulatory change has often spurred the auto industry to innovate, the administration has not demanded that cabs be accessible to the disabled.
Enforcing Human Rights Law
More broadly, Human Rights Law enforcement has continued to fade during the Bloomberg administration. The number of city-funded staffers at the Human Rights Commission in fiscal year 2010 has dropped fully 90 percent from the peak city-funded staffing level attained during the Dinkins administration and is even below its lowest levels during the Giuliani administration. City Hall declined to comment on the decrease.
The recently released Mayor’s Management Report has a brief section on the Human Rights Commission. That section reports that, over the past five years, an average of 383 complaints have been filed every year, many fewer complaints than used to be filed. Such a decline in complaints has occurred in the absence of any evidence that the incidence of acts of discrimination has declined. A more likely contributing factor may be a belief by many victims that filing a claim could well be futile.
Another contributing factor appears to be the fact that, during the Bloomberg administration, the commission has assumed more of a gatekeeper function, preventing potential complainants from filing their claims. The commission has followed this path even though the city Human Rights Law obliges the commission to accept any properly notarized complaint.
The report lists the "average value of cash settlement" for the 25 percent of cases that are settled at a little over $11,000 per case. Herbert Eisenberg, an attorney who has specialized in employed law for more than 25 years and who sits on the board of the National Employment Lawyers Association, described this average as something that "sounds like nuisance value" as opposed to something that would allow victims of discrimination "to be fully compensated for their damages."
The actual average per settlement may be lower. At least in the early days of the Bloomberg administration, when the commission calculated the average, it excluded settled cases where the complaining party received no compensatory damages.
The city has two other methods -- both involving the city’s Law Department -- to foster implementation of its Human Rights Law. First, the Law Department has the power to bring cases of patterns of discriminatory conduct to court under Chapter 4 of the City’s Human Rights Law.
The second method arises from the fact that any individual who has been discriminated against can go to court instead of going to the Human Rights Commission. Many of those cases results in appeals, and the city’s Law Department has the ability to seek to intervene as a "friend of the court" to argue for the broad construction of the law that is required by what 2005’s Local Civil Rights Restoration Act defined as the City Human Rights Law’s "uniquely broad and remedial" purposes.
The city has not taken advantage of either approach.
Monitoring City Employment
The Equal Employment Practices Commission can audit and evaluate the employment practices of the city’s own agencies. Ejim Dike, director of the Human Rights Project at the Urban Justice Center, said the commission has performed well, given its budget constraints. She noted, however, that it "is underfunded, and it does not have power to enforce the recommendations it makes to city agency’s that it audits.”
Schools Chancellor Joel Klein has often said that "for too long, and for far too great an extent, one’s race and ZIP code determined the quality of a child’s education." Asked whether demographics showing racial segregation in schools reflected underlying patterns of residential racial segregation, Will Havemann, a spokesperson for the city Department of Education, said, "That is absolutely the case."
Describing the mayor and the chancellor as "believing very strongly that education is the most important civil rights issue of the 21st century," Havemann identified efforts that the department believes are consistent with a civil rights focus. These include a drive to open new schools in neighborhoods that have traditionally been underserved and steps to increase fairness in the admissions process for specialized programs. Havemann also described the expansion of borough-wide and even citywide choices for high school enrollment -- as opposed to local preferences -- as increasing educational mobility for people of all races and backgrounds.
The success of the administration's efforts is strongly contested and that discussion dovetails with much of the debate over mayoral control of schools. The city, for example, says it has reduced the achievement gap between the races. Critics note, on the other hand, that fewer black and Latino teens now attend the city's elite high schools, such as Stuyvesant and Bronx High School of Science.
It is beyond the scope of this article to assess the efficacy of the Department of Education’s reform program. What is clear, however, is that the department’s explicit focus on issues of equity, its recognition that racial and socio-economic disparities exist, and its desire to "narrow the gap" signal a view that the educational status quo can and should be changed. This approach stands in contrast to the administration’s apparent view that, in the interrelated housing arena. patterns of segregation are an unalterable fact of New York City life.
Craig Gurian is a long-time civil rights advocate. He was the principal author for the Human Rights Commission of the comprehensive 1991 revisions to the City Human Rights Law and was the principal author of 2005’s Local Civil Rights Restoration Act. He also teaches civil rights courses at Fordham Law School, including Housing Discrimination: History, Demographics, Law, and Remedies. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.
Last Updated (May 25, 2012)