Political News

Michael Bloomberg and the tradition of expecting black forgiveness

Posted November 18, 2019 6:55 p.m. EST

— It's a prevailing assumption: Black Americans will reliably forgive.

On Sunday, Michael Bloomberg apologized for the New York Police Department's promotion of "stop and frisk," a controversial policing strategy that disproportionately affected black and Latino men and was a pillar of the former mayor's approach to crime control for more than a decade.

"Over time, I've come to understand something that I long struggled to admit to myself: I got something important wrong. I got something important really wrong," Bloomberg said to the congregation of a predominantly black church in Brooklyn. "I didn't understand back then the full impact that stops were having on the black and Latino communities."

Bloomberg continued: "I now see that we could and should have acted sooner and acted faster to cut the stops. I wish we had. I'm sorry that we didn't. But I can't change history. However, today, I want you to know that I realize back then I was wrong, and I'm sorry."

(Former New York Gov. David Paterson told The New York Post on Monday that Bloomberg privately questioned "stop and frisk" to him on two occasions.)

For one thing, Bloomberg is operating with a limber definition of the past: But I can't change history. Back then. As many have pointed out, it was only in January that he defended "stop and frisk," underscoring that "the result of (the tactic) was, over the years, the murder rate in New York City went from 650-a-year to 300-a-year when I left." (Notably, a 2018 report from the Equal Justice Initiative, a legal-advocacy organization, punctured the argument that "stop and frisk" was effective, documenting how crime rates fell even after New York City began to phase out its use of the program.)

In this light, Bloomberg's heel turn registers as a self-dealing attempt to garner support from a key Democratic constituency -- black voters -- as he considers launching a formal 2020 bid. Or as New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams put it: "Forgive many of us for questioning apologies a decade late and on the eve of a presidential run."

And yet, the former three-term mayor's reversal is perhaps queasier for something beyond its convenient timing: the fact that it isn't too shocking. After all, the expectation of black forgiveness is a common one in America.

In October, Amber Guyger, a former Dallas police officer, received a 10-year murder sentence for fatally shooting Botham Jean in 2018. It was a rare outcome: a white woman, punished for killing an innocent black man. Soon afterward, however, controversy centered on how, in the wake of Guyger's conviction, Jean's brother forgave her -- and hugged her.

Many black Americans were frustrated not because someone acted magnanimously, but because politicians and pundits seemed incapable of focusing on anything other than this display of grace -- behavior made worse given that this is a country whose criminal justice system fails to extend that same mercy to black Americans. ("Very few communities in our nation have had to suffer as much as black people, who have also been robbed of the opportunity to emote from that experience," the Rev. Michael Waters, of Joy Tabernacle African Methodist Episcopal Church in Dallas, told The Associated Press' Errin Haines.)

A similar tension was palpable in the months and years following the 2015 shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, or Mother Emanuel, in Charleston, South Carolina, where the white supremacist Dylann Roof gunned down nine black churchgoers. Then-Gov. Nikki Haley exulted in the grieving families' benevolence, saying, "South Carolina didn't have riots, we had vigils. We didn't have yelling, we had hugs and prayers."

As I wrote during Roof's trial in 2017, this sort of response, wrapped in the warm (and overrated) lighting of civility, was maddening in large part because it lauded forgiveness though this was arguably the only reaction that would've been acceptable to begin with. Meanwhile, Haley received credit for removing the Confederate flag, the symbol of white power Roof revered, from the Statehouse grounds -- something she had long resisted.

Bloomberg's mea culpa, in its own way, fits into the aforementioned pattern of presumption. Despite the harm "stop and frisk" inflicted on racial minorities during his tenure, the former mayor seems to be betting on forgiveness as a foregone conclusion as he imagines a path to the White House.

History would tell him that there are riskier bets he could make.

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