(The Root) — Imagine a world in which a white man running for mayor of New York City could say, "I have a son who looks like Trayvon."
Bill de Blasio is such a man. And it is the layered nuances of that simple yet deeply personal and important fact that may well help win him the election.
If you don't know de Blasio, you should. The New York public advocate and current leading mayoral candidate has been a fixture in New York politics for nearly 25 years. He began his career as an aide for David Dinkins, New York's first and only African-American mayor. De Blasio went on to serve as regional director for the Department of Housing and Urban Development in 1997, before winning a seat on the New York City Council in 2002, representing Brooklyn's ethnically diverse 39th District. Following three successful terms, he became New York public advocate in 2009.
And that is perhaps the best way to describe this politician: a public advocate — especially for the poor and marginalized.
De Blasio has built a career fighting to improve the quality of public schools, expand the availability of affordable housing and improve working conditions and benefits for the working classes. It is a worldview that he shares with his wife, Chirlane McCray, who just so happens to be African American. McCray's work as a writer and activist has focused largely on matters of race and women's rights. The two live in Brooklyn with their son, Dante, 15, and their daughter, Chiara, 18.
And this is where the personal meets the political.
After a recent campaign advert featuring his son, Dante — who sports a big, beautifully bold Afro — African-American and Hispanic voters began to take note. For many New Yorkers who had not been paying much attention to the race — or were distracted by Anthony Weiner's unfortunate revelations — de Blasio's fierce criticism of the New York City Police Department's stop-and-frisk policy suddenly became abundantly clear: This is a man who worries whether his son will be suspected and harassed by police for no other reason than the color of his skin.
This week federal Judge Shira Scheindlin, in the case Floyd v. City of New York, declared the current stop-and-frisk practice unconstitutional and said it amounted to "racial profiling." Mayor Michael Bloomberg responded by unapologetically defending the racially discriminatory practice and vowing to appeal the decision.
Though the city faces many challenges, stop and frisk and the unfair overpolicing of innocent minorities has remained a major issue for decades. De Blasio, unlike some of his competitors, has made the end of stop and frisk a cornerstone of his campaign. An equally important issue for this public servant is New York's rising income inequality, a matter he believes must be addressed holistically, from access to quality housing to education, health care services and, yes, police who actually do serve and protect — not just stop and frisk.
The Root spoke exclusively with Bill de Blasio, the man who would be mayor.
The Root: You have been the most outspoken critic of the NYPD"s stop-and-frisk policy. How has having a son who is African American informed your stance on this issue?
Bill de Blasio: It has been a fundamental piece of why I oppose the policies of this city. The question for my wife and I has not been if my son will be stopped, but when. We have had to jolt Dante into the recognition that he must understand that he will be stopped, and he'll be treated as a suspect. Police won't know him individually and won't see into his pure soul. So he needs to be cautious and aware.
And I know that is a conversation that hundreds of thousands of parents have with their children. But that conversation is only happening in African-American and Hispanic households. Policing in New York City has literally become separate and unequal.
TR: What do you wish to see happen with regard to the policy? What will you do or propose as mayor?
BDB: Judge Scheindlin was extraordinarily fair in the way she appointed a federal monitor. The police have exercised too much individual discretion in their determination for who counts as a suspect. And since the NYPD has never had substantial oversight, the only way to address these issues is head-on. But the truth is that if our City Council had managed to get its house in order, we wouldn't have required a court decision. The council has the power to curb police activity. We should vote and take a stand.
Now that the federal court has spoken, the city should not appeal the decision. And I, as mayor, would push for even stricter protections and safeguards. My problem with the status quo is that it's counterproductive to public safety. And more importantly, it is corrosive to the self-esteem of young men of color.
TR: Besides your family, is there something in your background that informs your passion for social justice?
BDB: My father was a veteran of World War II. He fought in the Pacific and lost his leg to a Japanese grenade. When he returned, he suffered from what doctors today would diagnose as PTSD — but those were different times. And men were left to wrestle with their demons.
From the time I was born, he was suffering from alcoholism, and my parents split by the time I was 7 years old. After that, he sank deeper into problems, and I felt torn and confused by it. I admired the hero that he was in war, and knew that there was something good and noble about the service to his country, but from a family perspective, he had let us down.
As I gained adult consciousness, it was impossible not to grapple with that. And if you're a young male and your main example is absent or troubled, that battle becomes your own. It felt like there was an injustice inherent in our experience. And history had come home to our family.
But I believe that is how I developed my sense of social activism: looking for an antidote and finding something therapeutic about attacking problems. Though we're not able to fully resolve problems, we can gain a sense of empathy. Talk to folks. Understand what's going on in their lives. And try to make a difference.
TR: And how does that inform your approach to matters of race, racism and racial injustice?
BDB: There are three pieces to that equation. First is my family. What happened between Chirlane and I was completely organic. We met as a part of a common cause. She was an anti-apartheid activist and inspired me. Everything we're representing is just who we are. We love each other. My desire for change is based on who I am personally, and who she and I are as a couple.
The second piece is philosophical. Early in my life, I recognized the need for fundamental change in the way our society deals with minorities, the poor and working classes. The Dinkins administration was the first to try to address the city's problems with inequality. That was 20 years ago. I joined that effort then and never let it go. It's why I talk about raising taxes on the top 1 percent of earners, and I focus on issues like the closing of hospitals in poor and minority neighborhoods. These are the things that matter to me.
The third piece is the company I keep. It's not been widely reported, but one of the major endorsements I received is from the executive council of 1199SEIU, NYC's biggest union and the biggest health care union in the nation. These health care workers are 200,000-strong in New York City alone, and they are largely African American, Afro-Caribbean and Hispanic. These people stand with me, at a grassroots level, because they know I stand with working people.
I've also been fortunate to receive the support of civil rights stalwart Harry Belafonte and entrepreneur Russell Simmons, who are both committed to the social and economic empowerment of black, Caribbean and Latino communities. People like New York Rep. Yvette Clarke and the Rev. Michael Walrond of the First Corinthian Baptist Church — these are voices of African-American conscience. Something is happening in the country and this city — first and foremost it's about economics — and these are the people who care and are willing to work to solve the inequities in our society.
Edward Wyckoff Williams is a contributing editor at The Root. He is a columnist and political analyst, appearing on Al-Jazeera, MSNBC, ABC, CBS Washington, Arise America and national syndicated radio. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.
Edward Wyckoff Williams is a contributing editor at The Root. He is a columnist and political analyst, appearing on Al-Jazeera, MSNBC, ABC, CBS Washington and national syndicated radio. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook.