Bloomberg Flunks the Wokeness Test

Stop-and-frisk was awful. But to disqualify the former New York mayor from the presidency on that basis is to risk something more destructive: a second term for Trump.

Michael Bloomberg
Yana Paskova / Getty Images

Is the American left about to prioritize virtue signaling over keeping an unqualified monomaniac from a second term as president? This is what would happen if Michael Bloomberg’s failed stop-and-frisk policy is treated as automatically disqualifying him from serious consideration as the Democratic presidential nominee.

When Bloomberg was mayor of New York City, the police department dramatically expanded a policy under which officers stopped people on the streets to question them and pat them down for weapons. This draconian practice unforgivably stifled black and Latino life in New York City for years.

Yet black America needs Bloomberg neither to have had a perfect past on race nor to “get it” 100 percent today—and neither does the rest of America. What black Americans want by overwhelming margins is for a moral and intelligent candidate to replace Donald Trump, and fetishizing wokeness above all other concerns may be antithetical to that paramount goal.

Bloomberg, a billionaire who was first elected mayor in 2001 and served for a dozen years, arguably has a better chance of ousting Trump than does Bernie Sanders, a growly 78-year-old man of socialist label who recently had a heart attack. If only because of his bankroll, Bloomberg could easily outshine Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar as well. What rationality could there be in allowing grievances over stop-and-frisk to ease Trump’s quest for a second term? Who is afraid, for example, that Bloomberg would try to reimpose unduly punitive policies like that on black people now?

Until recently, Bloomberg was unapologetic about stop-and-frisk. At the 2015 Aspen Ideas Festival, sponsored by the Aspen Institute and The Atlantic, Bloomberg stated that “95 percent of your murders and murderers and murder victims fit one MO. You can just take the description and xerox it and pass it out to all the cops. They are male minorities 15 to 25.” On why cops were stationed so disproportionately in minority neighborhoods, he mused, “Why’d we do it? Because that’s where all the crime is. And the way you should get the guns out of the kids’ hands is throw them against the wall and frisk them.”

Claims that these statements are “racist” are exaggerated, illustrating how heedlessly overextended certain Americans’ usage of that word has become. Nothing in what Bloomberg said suggests a sense of black people as lesser beings. The phrasing is more bumptious than Trumptious. Bloomberg was indecorous.

For example, Bloomberg’s justification for concentrating on black and Latino neighborhoods was sound. Those areas suffered from a disproportionate amount of crime for reasons beyond most residents’ control. As a matter of crime fighting, primly assigning just as many cops to the Upper East Side and Kips Bay would have been insane.

The problem was that the policy morphed into an onslaught on millions of innocent people for no real reason. Out of 2.3 million friskings up against a wall or car, no weapon was found in 98.5 percent of them. On 99 percent of the black people stopped, no weapon was found. Contraband (such as drugs) was found on 1.8 percent of black people stopped—and on 2.3 percent of white people.

Nothing justified how many brown men going about their business suffered this kind of treatment from the cops, and nothing more ringingly seals the coffin on the web of justifications than that homicides are down 43 percent in New York City since the policy was all but abandoned.

Meanwhile, a whole generation of young black men grew up thinking of the cops as their enemy, with hostility toward the police becoming essentially a defining trait of authenticity. This abuse by cops infused black conversation, journalism, creative writing, and performing arts throughout New York in the Bloomberg years. I will never forget meeting a 13-year-old black kid in the Bronx who was already imprinted with a fury against the cops and their behavior.

Those who wonder why black people can’t just “get past” race tend to miss how central the cops are to a sense that the nation is united against black people. From the Black Panthers to gangsta rap to Ferguson, the relationship between black people and the police has been the very fulcrum of interracial relations in modern America. Bloomberg’s stop-and-frisk policy baldly nurtured exactly this kind of hostility.

Bloomberg’s first apology came late and sounded forced. For years, he maintained that the policy was justifiable in serving the needs of the communities’ brown residents—as if such extreme measures were the only possible strategy—and in the face of falling crime rates year after year, even after the extinction of the policy. Then, his apology before a black church just when he decided to throw his hat into the ring as a presidential candidate seemed unabashedly self-serving—almost like something that Mayor Quimby from The Simpsons would pull. Bloomberg’s epiphany under political pressure was also reminiscent of the sudden realization by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1978 that black people should be allowed to be officials in the church hierarchy.

A white man minted in the 1950s, Bloomberg clearly doesn’t pass our modern wokeness test on race. He is hardly the first white man of his age and milieu who cannot seem to understand the nuances of race and racism in America, beyond knowing that one is not supposed to be prejudiced. A man who could watch what the stop-and-frisk regime did to black New Yorkers and not recognize the sociological damage it involved is someone who perhaps does not always see black people as fully as we would like to be seen.

Not that he sees us as animals, or even as inferior humans. But for some white Americans, we look how a photo looks on your phone when you have weak coverage—recognizable and then some, but not fully filled in.

The question is: Does Bloomberg’s lack of understanding disqualify him from the presidency? Here is someone who as mayor, taking no pay, accomplished a great deal that people on the left salute. He has supported gun control and climate change. He even made a serious try at learning Spanish. His controversial attempt to ban large soda portions was intended as a strategy to improve the health of, primarily, poor people of color.

For some, stop-and-frisk is a deal-breaker. Note how modern—up-to-the minute, even—it seems to disqualify Bloomberg for one mistake on race, even if he would govern better than Trump has in all ways. It’s straight from the woke playbook. Freezing out the former mayor would also be a kind of atonement for the left’s having let pass Hillary Clinton’s “super-predator” comment in the 1990s. Atonement is the operative word here. To shout down Bloomberg because of that one policy would constitute a strain of anti-racism that has all the characteristics of religion rather than rationality. By denouncing a candidate as formidable as Bloomberg, people will show one another that they understand the evil of racism and go in grace—even on the pain of an impeached, amoral Trump being reelected.

This gives new meaning to the idea that the personal is political, and it should alarm all good people. Bloomberg has apologized again—and the truth is, there is no way for him to do so in a fashion that would reveal to us the actual contours of his heart. Especially if this man can dislodge Trump, a president whom most Americans of color abhor, the apologies should be enough.

We are faced, as so often of late, with white social-media commentators being woker on race than the black people they mean to support. Black America is coming around to Bloomberg in poll after poll, apparently unaware of the new wisdom that one unwise policy on race must render a man eternally dismissible even after multiple apologies.

The truly enlightened response to any pious insistences that Bloomberg be sent home over stop-and-frisk is to ask: Even if it means letting Trump have a second term? People who say yes will reveal themselves as fringe extremists, while the harrumphing of those less forthright will illuminate the difference between striking a pose for posterity and working for the better in an imperfect world.