When New Yorkers this week chose Eric Adams as their next mayor and Alvin Bragg as the next Manhattan district attorney, they elevated two more Black men into high office at a time when the city and state are being led by a historic number of Black leaders.
It’s a moment African American officials say has been a long time coming, made possible by an earlier generation of trailblazers who broke barriers in the face of immense bias and carried the burden of being the first.
U.S. Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, one of a record seven Black people now representing New York in Congress, said the new mayor and prosecutor will be “transformational figures.”
“The emergence of individuals like Eric Adams and Alvin Bragg follow in a long tradition of leaders who emerge from the fiery furnace of the Black experience in New York City, particularly in some of our toughest neighborhoods, to become public servants committed to doing a great deal of good for everyone,” said Jeffries.
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Nearly 28 years after David Dinkins ended his single term as New York's first Black mayor, the halls of power in the city and state are packed with Black leaders from the city or its suburbs, including three of the state's most powerful politicians: Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and Letitia James, the state’s first Black attorney general, who is now running for governor.
A majority of the city's borough presidents are now Black, as well as several top prosecutors, including both of its appointed U.S. attorneys, and its elected public advocate, Jumaane Williams, who is considering a gubernatorial run.
The change has happened even as the number of Black people living in New York City has declined, falling by 4.5% since 2010 while the city's overall population grew.
According to the 2020 census, 20% of New Yorkers are Black, 31% are non-Hispanic white, 28% are Hispanic and around 16% are Asian.
Bronx District Attorney Darcel Clark, who in 2015 became the state’s first African American woman elected as a DA, said the historic wave of Black leadership is both long overdue and timely following the national racial reckoning that occurred in 2020 after the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
“I think the more we can have people that look like the people and the communities that we serve, the better. I should not be the only one,” she said.
Lt. Gov. Brian Benjamin, who became the second Black person to hold that role when he was appointed in September, recalled a recent political rally in Harlem attended by federal, state and local African American elected officials and candidates.
“There were young Black boys and young Black girls who were able to look at us and say, ‘Oh wow. This is normal. I can do this. I can be a mayor. I can be lieutenant governor. I can be a congressperson,'” Benjamin said.
Many of the Black politicians, including Adams and Bragg, drew upon their life stories as they campaigned, describing firsthand experience with inequity, racism or unequal and brutal treatment from the criminal justice system.
Adams talked about growing up poor and experiencing brutality as a teenager at the hands of police before becoming a police officer himself. He became a captain and an outspoken activist calling out injustices in the New York Police Department.
Bragg, a civil rights lawyer and former federal prosecutor, talked about being held at gunpoint by both crooks and police officers during his youth in Harlem.
Days before he was elected district attorney, he was questioning New York City police officers as part of a judicial inquiry into the 2014 police chokehold death of Eric Garner, whose pleas of “I can’t breathe” became a rallying cry of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Donovan Richards Jr., who last year became the first Black man elected as Queens borough president, said that in the past, he and other Black politicians were often told: “Don’t talk about your Blackness. Don’t talk about where you’re from.”
“Often we’re told to shy away from who we are, to shy away from our stories, especially as Black men. You need to smile a little more in your pictures,” Richards said. “I think we have changed the narrative.”
New Yorkers on Tuesday elected an Afro Caribbean of Dominican heritage, City Council Member Antonio Reynoso, to replace Adams as Brooklyn borough president. Across town, City Council Member Vanessa Gibson became the first Black woman elected Bronx borough president.
Richards said there’s also a huge burden with being the first — or even the second — person of color to hold an elected office.
“It’s a lot of pressure,” he said. “You don’t get to settle in and you can’t make mistakes.”
Adam Clayton Powell Jr. became the first African American to represent New York in Congress in 1945. Shirley Chisholm became the first Black woman elected to Congress from any state in 1969. Both faced immense challenges because of racism.
Even though earlier African American leaders paved the way, Richards said he, Adams, Bragg and other Black leaders today still face bias and microaggressions after winning top offices.
Richards said that when he first took office, he was stopped several days in a row at the entrance to borough hall by a security guard asking to see some identification. Richards explained he was the borough president.
“Then he says, ‘You’re the borough president?’ I said, ‘Yes. Get used to it,’” Richards recalled, with a laugh.
Associated Press writer Michael R. Sisak contributed to this report.