In 1989, New York Mayor Edward Koch was running for a fourth term. He was defeated by a 16-year-old, Yusuf Hawkins, a black New Yorker who was surrounded by a white mob in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, before being fatally shot in the chest. The mob had formed in part in response to a rumor that a black or Hispanic teen from outside the largely Italian-American neighborhood was dating a local girl.
Three days later, predominantly black civil rights marchers walked through Bensonhurst in protest. In response, local whites spewed racial epithets in a scene reminiscent of Boston during the battle over school busing.
For many white New Yorkers, the racist murder in Brooklyn was the last straw. Having spent the 1960s brandishing their moral superiority over the racial tribalism of Birmingham and Montgomery, they couldn't abide a similar display in Brooklyn. That the Hawkins killing occurred just three years after another death-by-racism case in Howard Beach, Queens, added to its political gravity.
Koch's administration had been marked by numerous successes; he was a force in New York City's rise from the ashes of the 1970s. But the final years of his administration were marred by a corruption scandal and a pervasive racial tension that Koch's blunt style sometimes exacerbated. To damp the fuse on the racial powder keg, Democratic voters concluded Koch had to go.
On Sept. 12, less than three weeks after the Hawkins killing, New York Democrats ousted the incumbent mayor and voted for David Dinkins, who went on to become the city's first and only black mayor. As the New York Times reported, Dinkins "put together a winning combination by sweeping black neighborhoods and making deep inroads into white areas that Mayor Koch had hoped to win handily."
The racial tensions of the 1980s bled into the racial division of the 1990s, with Dinkins's tumultuous term succeeded by the contentious two terms of Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. Then, somehow, the tension eased; New York became a much more hospitable place.
The change doesn't seem to owe much to demographics. The city was 43 percent non-Hispanic white in 1990; in 2010 the percentage was 44. Blacks are a quarter of the population now as then. And though the Hispanic share of population nationwide has more than doubled in those twenty years, in New York City it has risen from 24 percent to 29 percent. Meanwhile, Asians have grown from almost 7 percent to almost 13 percent.
Was it Sept. 11 that brought New Yorkers together? Perhaps. But it seems equally plausible that Sept. 11 was the end of a process of racial healing rather than its beginning. Koch lost to Dinkins that September of 1989. But Yusuf Hawkins may have won the most votes.
(Francis Wilkinson is a member of the Bloomberg View editorial board. He was a campaign staff member on the 1989 David Dinkins campaign. Follow him on Twitter.)