Racial tensions – linked to disputes about resource allocation, segregation, and crime and policing – dominated politics in New York City in the 1980s and 1990s. Residential segregation left poor neighborhoods like the South Bronx, with a majority African American and Puerto Rican population, struggling to recover from the arson and abandonment of the 1970s, while real estate values in Manhattan soared. Democratic Mayor Ed Koch (1978-1989) alienated African Americans and Latinos by closing Harlem’s Sydenham Hospital in 1980, known for hiring African American doctors and nurses when other hospitals’ staff remained all white, and by failing to adequately respond to charges of police brutality and cases of racially motivated killings.
In working-class white ethnic enclaves, some residents used violence to preserve racial segregation. Three black men -- Willie Turks, Michael Griffith, and Yusuf Hawkins -- died at the hands of white mobs in the 1980s. In 1989 and 1990, civil rights leader Rev. Al Sharpton staged protest marches through the largely Italian-American neighborhood of Bensonhurst to protest both Hawkins’ killing and the acquittal of his accused assailant. White counter-demonstrators chanted racist slurs and held watermelons, a symbol of racist iconography dating back to the 19th century.
Tensions boiled over in Crown Heights, Brooklyn in August 1991, when an automobile accident in which two black children were struck, one fatally, by a Hasidic Jewish motorcade led to three days of rioting, including the killing of two white men by groups of young black men and anti-Semitic attacks on Jewish homes and businesses. The Crown Heights riots worsened race relations in general and particularly between blacks and Orthodox Jews, and contributed to Republican Rudy Giuliani’s 1994 mayoral victory over Democrat David Dinkins, the first African American mayor of New York. New Yorkers also supported national and international civil rights struggles including the South African anti-apartheid movement, the Puerto Rican nationalist movement, and the Asian American civil rights movement.