Eric Adams Is Making White Liberals Squirm

He battled police brutality. Now this ex-cop is fighting efforts to defund the force. Many New Yorkers seem ready to give his middle-of-the-road ideas a try.

Photo collage of Eric Adams
Getty; Adam Maida / The Atlantic

More than 20 years ago, I sat down to talk with a Black cop from New York City. He had a weightlifter’s powerful hands, a quick-trigger tongue, and a scar on the back of his shaved head from his days in a youth gang.

At the time, the relationship between police officers and Black residents was raw. This was Rudy Giuliani’s New York, where a white New York cop sodomized a suspect with his baton and police killed an unarmed Black immigrant in a blizzard of gunfire.

In 1999, not long before we spoke, this New York cop had dared to testify about racism in the police department in front of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission. He’d said that his boss, the police chief, and then-Mayor Giuliani, a fellow Republican, were masters of trickery. He’d accused them of twisting statistics to hide the racial profiling brought about by the “stop and frisk” tactics used by New York police, who were hassling Black and Latino boys. He’d said he was risking career “suicide” by testifying.

So imagine my surprise when the intense 38-year-old lieutenant from 1999, now a Democrat, told New York voters that he is the man to deal with a spike in violent crime in 2021—and enough people listened to make a retired Black cop the likely next mayor of the nation’s biggest city.

Since we last spoke, he had passed the exam to become a captain, retired from the police force after 22 years, won a seat in the state Senate, and then become the Brooklyn borough president.

But when we met up again in late July, sitting in a Brooklyn coffee shop, we quickly picked up the conversation that we had begun more than 20 years ago about improving policing to bridge distrust among the city’s racial tribes. And he insisted that he hadn’t changed.

“Everybody is trying to figure me out because I refuse to fit into this neat little package,” he said. “People are saying, ‘We don’t know who he is.’ Listen, I know New Yorkers. New Yorkers want to be safe. They want their children educated; they want [jobs] … They could care less if you call them left or right. Those are insiders caught up in that left-and-right stuff. I am just a straight New Yorker.”

As Eric Adams discusses Eric Adams, he tends to lapse into the third person, as if stepping outside himself and seeing Eric Adams as a player on the big stage. To judge by the votes they cast, a lot of white liberals find him off-putting. I find him instantly recognizable.

If Adams tends to put himself at center stage, perhaps it’s because no one else was going to do that. I grew up in Brooklyn, a working-class Black kid like Adams. Few of our white neighbors then were capable of imagining a Black boy as a future mayor. He’s not an Ivy League grad but a kid who beat the odds by getting into New York’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice. My best friend from P.S. 241 made it up in the world the same way. Adams inherited a good heart from a loving mom, and developed great drive, because he had to rely on himself.

Adams and his message are attracting national attention from a Democratic Party stung by the charge that it wants to defund the police. Black police officers straddle the dangerous intersection of white fear of Black crime and Black fear of white cops. They are often viewed with scorn by liberal activists, and with suspicion by their white peers. And yet a retired Black cop has built a campaign around a law-and-order message, and won with the support of Black and brown Democrats.

“We make a mistake when we hear people say they don’t want police to be abusive,” Adams told me. “Some of us interpret that as We don’t want police. That is just not true. I challenge you: Go through these communities with high crime and you start telling them you are going to pull the police away. You are going to need a cop.”

That message doesn’t sit well with some Democrats. Adams recently had to make a trip to Washington, D.C., to mend fences with the New York congressional delegation. During his primary campaign, he said that Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and others calling to defund the police would “endanger the lives of New Yorkers.”

The New Yorkers in Congress made it clear to Adams that he needs to respect their stand against police brutality, even if they differ on policy.

But the same trip also made clear the power of his message. Top Democrats including Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer and Representative James Clyburn, a member of the House leadership, met with him privately. President Joe Biden earlier met with him one-on-one in the Oval Office.

“If we are real about stopping the destruction of Black and brown lives,” Adams told me, “we have to be real about the conversation.”

By that, he means talking about Black-on-Black crime, a subject that white liberals are often reluctant to raise.

“Back then, when it was not a slogan painted on the streets, I was talking about Black Lives Matter,” he said. “You can’t say ‘Black lives matter’ and have outrage when a police officer shoots someone … but ignore shootings in our city the same day when 15 people are shot.”

He adds: “We must be holistic … when we are talking about the [George] Floyd case; don’t mix it up. Police reform has nothing to do with violence in our community … But when we are talking about the Floyd case, we should also be talking about the violence that we are seeing in Chicago: 100 people shot over the July Fourth weekend,”

Back in the ’90s, when he was an officer, Adams had the same message. He just put it in more personal terms. “If I get killed while on the job, the odds are it will be a Black person pulling the trigger,” he told me then. “But I’m not going to judge my whole community by a few clowns.”

The power of Black policemen fascinated Eric Adams when he first saw it as a teen.

He grew up in a tenement in Brooklyn. His parents had come north from Alabama in the ’50s without much education. His mom took day jobs cleaning houses. His father had steady work as a butcher, but liquor and women took up much of his time and paycheck. His mom, however, saved enough to buy a house in Queens as many of the city’s ethnic groups began their white flight to Long Island and New Jersey. At the time, Eric, one of six children, was in the second grade.

Queens, with its detached houses and little lawns, seemed a suburban fantasy to his family, but the neighborhood was already changing for the worse. Gangs moved in and Eric joined the 7-Crowns, a crew named for a brand of scotch. In a gang fight with the Savage Skulls, someone hit 14-year-old Eric from behind with a bat that had a nail embedded in it, splitting his scalp behind his ears and sending blood flowing onto his shirt.

By the time he was 15, Adams was known as a tough little guy, trusted to run numbers and hold money for older hustlers in his neighborhood. Life was hustle, and Eric was making it. Hanging out with an older crowd took him into the local strip club, Pier II, where he met a dancer and part-time prostitute named Micki.

Micki teased the streetwise kid. Wearing only a tiny bra and G-string, she would chat with little Eric between acts. Then she broke her leg, and Eric went to see her at her apartment. He started running errands for her while she couldn’t dance, picking up groceries, booze, and smokes. He got a kick out of talking to her, acting like the man of the house and eyeing the other sex workers who came by to see their friend. But when Micki got her cast taken off, she didn’t want him hanging around all the time anymore.

​​His feelings hurt, Eric demanded that she repay him for the money he had spent on her groceries and all that he had done. She refused. Several nights later, when he knew she was back at work at the strip club, Eric and his older brother, Conrad, used a key they had to let themselves into her apartment. They took a TV set and a money order. The police caught on to Eric when he tried to cash the money order. He and his brother were arrested.

In the station house, two white cops took the boys downstairs for what the officers casually called a “beatdown,” punching and kicking the brothers, mostly in their groin and testicles, where the damage wouldn’t show. A Black cop finally looked in and told the white officers, “That’s enough.” For seven days, Eric’s urine was full of blood. After the beating at the police station, he was sent to a juvenile detention facility while his brother, who was older than 16, went to the station house’s adult lockup.

They were released after a few days to await trial. The judge gave them probation and sent them home. The impact of the beating stayed with the boys. Afterward, Conrad held a deep fear and hatred for cops. He wanted nothing to do with them.

But Eric was drawn to power. He thought the cops had a great hustle. They were more powerful than the petty criminals he had admired. And he was deeply impressed that a Black cop in the station house had enough clout to tell white cops to stop beating two Black kids.

“This Black guy was able to go among those white guys and stop this. He got juice—J­-U-I-C-E, as the kids would say,” Adams told me in 1999, with the excitement of a man who had a revelation about how the world works. “Remember, back then, there was this mystique about white folks. They were all living high on the hog, and a Black man like me was eating the feet. So to see this brother almost being the equal of white folks, I liked that.”

At 17, Eric decided that he, too, wanted to be a Black policeman. He wanted to get in on the free drinks, the swagger, the respect, the fear. He also saw the chance to be a neighborhood hero, the potential for police to change life on the streets for the better.

Police work had been a ladder of economic mobility for generations of white immigrants in New York, especially the Irish. By contrast, Black people moving up from the South, such as Adams’s parents, had little access to jobs in the department. But by the late ’70s, demographic changes in the city forced a reluctant department to open its doors to minorities. Adams took some college courses, where he came into touch with radical Black professors and activist clergy, who had taken the lead in protesting the police killings of several Black men in the late ’70s.

When Black leaders floated the idea of having young Black men go beyond protesting against the police, and actually join the police, Adams was intrigued. Reverend Herbert Daughtry, who was known for leading boycotts to force businesses in Black neighborhoods to hire more Black workers, pushed Adams to get into the overwhelmingly white police department to fight the power from the inside.

Adams thought back to the Black cop who told the white cops to stop beating him. He applied to the department and became one of the top students in the police academy’s class of 1984. Eight years after being brutally beaten by cops, Adams was one of the Black men in blue.

There was a moment early in his police career that made clear to Adams what a high-wire act he was performing as a Black officer. As a 25-year-old beat patrolman in Chinatown in 1986, standing on a subway platform as he headed home from work, he saw three loud-talking young Black guys walk by. Moments later, he heard an elderly Asian man scream that he had been robbed. Adams ran to him and saw the man bleeding from a ragged cut to his face, holding his neck where gold chains had been ripped off.

Gun drawn, Adams leaped over the turnstile, and told the guy selling tokens to call 911 and inform the police dispatcher that there was a Black plainclothes officer in pursuit of three Black males. Then he sprinted up the steps.

In Chinatown after midnight, the sidewalks still held a crowd. Adams scanned the shadows in dark doorways, old buildings, and unlit alleys.

Then police cars, lights flashing, joined the scene. Those officers, too, were looking for Black suspects. And Adams was a Black man, running with a gun in his hand.

“All they know is that there was a robbery” is how Adams described his understanding in that moment of piercing fear, “and if they see me with a gun in my hand, I got a problem.” Adams caught one of the boys, overpowering him in a fight. He pushed the boy’s face against a brick wall and started “tossing him” for weapons and stolen goods. The boy cursed at him.

Seconds later, a police car raced into the alley and white cops jumped out. Adams screamed, “I’m on the job!”—police talk for doing undercover work. The white cops did not lower their guns. Then a Black sergeant appeared and started shouting, “He’s a cop! He’s a cop! Don’t shoot!”

Adams realized that no matter his rank, his love for the department, or his middle-class status, in the mind of many white New York City cops, he would always look like a criminal.

By 1993, Adams’s test scores earned him a promotion to sergeant. He was young, 33, and his willingness to speak out about racial issues in the department won him the role of chair of the Grand Council of the Guardians, the official fraternal organization of Black police officers in the New York City Police Department.

His ties to Black activists in the city also gave him access to radical groups with deep distrust of New York’s nearly all-white police brass. The department that promoted him and controlled his career was not comfortable with his Black-radical pals. Meanwhile, the activists had questions about a man who held rank in the historically racist NYPD.

The conflicting pressures on Adams became public when he appeared onstage with the Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan. Adams had no direct ties to Farrakhan, but he was working with local NOI chapters because of their success patrolling crime-ridden housing projects. He decided to appear with Farrakhan because, despite Farrakhan’s ugly anti-Semitism, Adams was drawn to the respect that the man commanded among his followers, and attracted to the sight of Black Americans coming together to build an independent power base with their own leaders.

Adams also appreciated Farrakhan’s conservative “up by the bootstraps” message, which reminded him of his mother’s stress on working hard, saving money, and owning property. (Adams has since condemned Farrakhan for his anti-Semitic remarks.)

But the outside world was not forgiving. The New York Post’s editorial page castigated Adams for associating with a leader whose anti-Semitic rants had made him anathema to New York’s large Jewish population.

When New York’s moderate Black mayor, David Dinkins, was in a tough race to win reelection in 1993, he sought out Adams, as a leader of Black police officers, for an endorsement. Adams initially withheld his endorsement, insisting that Dinkins see the good in the local Nation of Islam’s anti-crime initiative. He wanted Dinkins to meet with Farrakhan to discuss the possibility of the city hiring the Nation of Islam’s security company to patrol public-housing projects. Adams felt that Dinkins was running scared from any association with Farrakhan because of the campaign, and that Dinkins did not grasp the need to provide safety in public housing.

More important, Adams believed that Dinkins was being outmaneuvered by the senior white police officials he had told to hire and promote more Black and Latino officers. Dinkins had persuaded the legislature to provide funding to hire additional police, but Adams thought the police brass were slow-walking background checks on minority recruits to keep them out of the department, and delaying psychology tests and exams to keep the NYPD white.

At the time, more than two-thirds of the department was white, but 60 percent of the population of New York City was Black, Hispanic, or Asian.

Years later, Adams told me that he’d always considered Dinkins a friend and a mentor. He eventually endorsed Dinkins. But in the heat of the moment, he could be harsh in talking about the mild-mannered Dinkins: “He knows he is a punk—it’s not personal,” Adams said in 1999.

Giuliani defeated the city’s first Black mayor. The conservative former prosecutor immediately made a crackdown on crime the centerpiece of his administration. And Adams discovered a new set of problems.

Giuliani took control of the police department, encouraging harsh policing tactics while displaying indifference to their impact on Black and Latino neighborhoods. To give himself some distance from Giuliani, in 1995 Adams formed a new organization of Black police officers. Unlike the Guardians, the new group—called 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement Who Care—was independent of the department, and thus beyond Giuliani’s reach. Each of the founding 110 Black cops agreed to contribute $10 a month to the group, which it used to make small donations to needy people.

But what really caught the public eye was that Adams had his fellow Black cops go to Black churches, fraternities, and youth groups to talk with boys. Adams advised Black kids on dealing with the aggressive, Giuliani-approved tactics of the New York City police. Cops began arresting panhandlers and people drinking beer in public. They stopped kids riding bikes on the sidewalk. Most often, this new hyper­vigilant approach was aimed at low-income Black and Hispanic residents.

Adams agreed with Giuliani’s low-tolerance campaign against crime—he just didn’t like its racial overtones.

“It becomes a quality-of-life issue for upper-class whites in the city, and if you control Blacks and Hispanics, then you improve the quality of life,” Adams told me in 1999, describing Giuliani’s calculus. “The popular notion now is that predatory crime is bad for business, for tourism, for the stock market. And if predatory crime is out of control, [a politician] will be judged by that. The name of the game is: How do you beat predatory crime? One way is to deal with it before it becomes predatory crime. I’m with that. Deal with the small disorders before they blow up. The problem with that is you put power into the hands of a young police department, most of them white, and their concept of policing comes from Starsky and Hutch. It’s going to get rough.”

With frequent clashes between mostly white cops and New Yorkers of color, Adams had 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement begin offering more and more classes to teach Black people the dos and don’ts of interacting with police while Black.

“I’m teaching survival skills,” Adams told me at the time. He warned Black boys and men that if a police officer stopped them while driving, they should turn on the dome light so the officer could see everything in the car. Adams counseled Black men to keep their hands out of their pockets, to put them on the steering wheel or the dashboard, and to tell the cops when they were going to reach inside their jacket for their license or into the glove compartment for their registration.

“Take control of the situation; de-escalate it,” Adams told me he advised his audiences. Even if a police officer taunts you and calls you a racial slur, “you ignore it and de-escalate the situation, then you come back later with the necessary people and you fight that. Come back with your parent, teacher, lawyer, and you fight that. If you try to fight it on the scene, they can arrest you for resisting arrest, for disorderly conduct, for assaulting an officer—and then you’ve got a criminal record that will stay with you for life.”

Older Black men began inviting Adams to come to fraternities, social clubs, even judicial conferences. “One thing we all have in common, doesn’t matter where you come from, Black people are all worried about encountering the police, including the judges. When a Black judge is in his Mercedes, he doesn’t have on those black robes,” he said. “And the cop may be thinking … What are you doing in this nice car?

At the heart of this tension between cops and Black men is the reality that young Black men are feared. Black boys are “menacing by their very presence,” former New York Senator Al D’Amato once said of his youthful constituents. When he was still just a New York real-estate mogul, former President Donald Trump took out a newspaper advertisement calling for five Black boys to be given the death sentence when they were suspected in the 1989 rape of a woman in Central Park. The charges were later vacated, but Trump never apologized.

And Black men are being poured into America’s jails in such astonishing numbers, experts estimate that more than a quarter of all Black men will serve jail time during their life. Some 40 percent of the federal prison population is made up of Black men.

In the time that Adams was an officer, the tension between young Black men and the police became a staple of popular culture. In 1992, Ice-T’s group Body Count released “Cop Killer,” with lyrics that included the line: “I’m a cop killer / Better you than me / Cop Killer / Fuck police brutality! / Cop Killer / I know your family’s grieving / Cop Killer / But tonight, we are going to get even, ha, ha, ha!”

Adams’s effort to teach young Black men how to avoid trouble with the police attracted critics. Al Sharpton, New York’s most prominent Black activist, told Adams that he was teaching Black kids how to “live under oppression.” Les Payne, a Black columnist for Newsday, wrote that Adams was a “misguided black police” officer who was encouraging Black children to go along with the “overzealous stop-and-frisk tactics of the New York Police Department.”

Payne and Sharpton never persuaded Adams to shut down his tutorials. Adams was unrepentant. He told me at the time that interacting with police wasn’t like confronting racism in the workplace, which might put your job on the line. “But you be defiant in this hustle and you are losing your life,” he said.

“Les Payne and Sharpton are romanticizing who the police and people on the street are,” he continued. “They don’t see the number of people who get beat down for not taking their hands out of their pockets … They don’t see the people who get arrested, who have to go to court, who get a record for life, whose families have to get involved. They have lost the fight. Let’s defy, but defy as intelligent adults.”

By 1998, Sergeant Eric Adams had twice passed the written and oral tests for lieutenant, but the police commissioner hadn’t chosen his name from the list of officers eligible for promotion, and he was starting to think that, given his ties to Farrakhan and his willingness to publicly criticize the department, he never would.

Then, that summer, Adams got a call from top police officials in Harlem. A group of Black Muslims had won a court order allowing them to hold a “Million Youth March” in the neighborhood. The prospect of thousands of excited Black teenagers packed together to hear the Nation of lslam’s racially explosive oratory on Harlem’s streets threw a scare into police officials. White police commanders in Harlem approached Adams to see whether his ties to the Nation of Islam could be of help in negotiating security plans with Farrakhan’s people to keep control of the crowd’s anger and energy. Adams wanted to bring in Black police officers from around the city to patrol the rally. But as the rally grew near, top police officials took over preparations for the march and cut off all contact with Adams. At precisely the moment the parade permit expired, the police pulled the electricity from the stage and a police helicopter flew low over the crowd of 20,000, stirring panic and sending people running in every direction. Meanwhile, heavily armored officers began pushing Black Muslims off the stage. Adams and other Black officers began walking down 125th Street telling Black youngsters to go home, urging them not to give the police an excuse to start cracking heads.

“My initial human reaction in a situation like that is to take flight,” Adams recalled a year later. “Mayhem, chaos like that is something like Vietnam, where you don’t know who is taking the opportunity to shoot at you. But I decided I had to stay, because all of us were worried that Harlem was going to burn that night unless someone intervened.”

In the aftermath, Adams became convinced that the mayor had deliberately provoked a confrontation.

“It was a message from Giuliani,” he told me: “No more catering to these Black guys, the Farrakhans and the Sharptons.” Three months earlier, after James Byrd Jr. was tied to a pickup truck and dragged to his death by white supremacists in Texas, the Black Muslim leader Khalid Muhammad had organized a protest march in Jasper, Texas, and many participants took full advantage of Texas’s open-carry laws. Then-Governor George W. Bush had allowed the march to proceed. “Giuliani was saying, ‘That punk governor in Texas may have allowed you to walk the streets with your M-16s,’” Adams concluded, “‘but that is not happening in New York City.’”

After the violence in Harlem, Adams got promoted. The newly minted lieutenant was stationed at the 88th Precinct, in the Fort Greene section of Brooklyn. At 4 on a humid morning, he received a “13” call from one of his officers, requesting immediate assistance. Adams raced to the scene, off Grand Street, the site of a thriving drug market. On the corner were more than 40 young guys, all of them Black and most of them appearing high. They pressed in around the Black officer who had placed the call and her partner.

At the sight of Adams, in his white shirt, one teenager shouted, “Yeah, we got a brother in charge here.”

Adams cut straight to the middle of the fracas. An elderly Black woman with dreadlocks was calling his officer an “Uncle Tom Bitch.” Adams stepped between the officer and the old woman. She turned away. With that, the mob thinned out.

But Adams remembered the expressions on the face of the young Black men. “If you have hate for the blue uniform, you have twice as much hate for the Black in the blue uniform,” he told me later.

His new role, though, also helped Adams find new audiences for his message. In 1999, he appeared on a special edition of ABC’s Nightline, describing his program to teach Black New Yorkers how to interact with the police to avoid getting shot or arrested. The New York Times ran a profile. “Lying is at the root of our training,” Adams told the paper. “At the academy, recruits are told that they should not see Black or brown people as different, but we all do. We all know that the majority of people arrested for predatory crimes are African Americans. We didn’t create that scenario, but we have to police in that scenario. So, we have to be honest and talk about it.”

At the same time, Adams grew harshly critical of Giuliani’s approach to crime, faulting his failure to give equal attention to white, upper-class criminals. “The father of blue-collar crime is white-collar crime,” he told me in 1999. Adams argued that it was mostly white people who were illegally selling guns to young Black men, and that it was white people who were manufacturing the crack that was sold by small-time dealers in Black neighborhoods. “It’s a crime that 63 percent of the kids in New York City schools can’t pass a fourth-grade standardized test,” Adams said. “My argument is we need to go after predatory crimes against people, but at the same time, we have to understand what creates that crime—closed after-school programs, eliminated summer jobs, cut youth services.”

One day in 1999, as I was walking with Adams in Manhattan, a Black woman jumped out of a run-down Chevette to shake Adams’s hand. “You go, Eric Adams,” she said. “You’re standing up for the people. You don’t take nothing from the white police or the gangsters.”

Adams smiled as the woman got back into her car. He told me he considered her  part of his “constituency”—“people of color doing 9-to-5, trying to make it like my mother,” he said. “Not the people who want to bum up the police department and shout, ‘Kill the pigs,’ not the people that say Black people should stay on welfare. No, my constituency is people getting up early when that alarm clock goes off, getting their kids dressed and making sure their butts are in school. They don’t go to some Caribbean island for vacation; they go to Coney Island.”

And even then, he sounded the themes that would eventually make him the Democratic nominee for mayor.

“Far too many activists are anti–police brutality with a vengeance, but they have not shown that same level of vigilance in dealing with some of the crimes of the criminal element among us,” he said. “We were outraged after the Abner Louima incident, yet a few weeks later, three Black men poured gasoline into a token booth in the subway and set the clerk on fire. Killed him. Clerk was Black. People that did it were Black. We need to be consistent in our outrage. Mama doesn’t lock her door at night with those four locks because Volpe”—the former officer convicted of sodomizing Louima—“is coming.”

Twenty years later, Adams and I sat in the coffee shop on a rainy afternoon. A few employees asked him if he was Eric Adams. He had no security detail with him, only a personal aide.

He seemed dissatisfied with the approach that Washington was taking to police reform. “The first thing you need to do is to sit down with [leaders of Black police-officer associations] and say, ‘How do we reform this profession that you understand?’” Adams said, implying that voices like his own, people with on-the-ground experience, had been left out of the Democratic Party’s conversation.

Well, now Adams has the nation’s attention.

What does he plan to do about public alarm at the recent rise in violent crime?

For many people, he explained, the rise in violence “is not actual, it is perceived, and perception is reality.” And that worries him. “People don’t perceive they are safe, because they don’t perceive they are safe from the police and they don’t feel they are safe from the bad guys … That is a bad place to be.”

But he has a plan for dealing with the surge in gun violence. “I use the term ‘Protect, pivot, and adjust,’” he said. “We know where the gangs are. We have a map at 1 Police Plaza that shows you all the crews … we know who the bad guys are in our cities. We are just reluctant to go after them in a precision way.”

What that means in practice is a return to plainclothes policing that “zeroes in on gun violence,” and on the people suspected of involvement with gun crime.

Adams adds that he knows a secret about his city’s criminals: A large percentage of them live with dyslexia, other learning disabilities, or mental illness. To deal with that root problem, Adams says he wants to “change the ecosystem of public safety.” That means hiring not just more police, but more mental-health professionals, and doing a better job to help children who are failing in school.

“If you don’t educate, you will incarcerate,” he said. “We have to build the education factor into our public-safety ecosystem.”

He also wants to speed up discipline for bad cops and recruit more Black, brown, and Asian police officers to put a different face on the police force.

“We need a massive recruitment campaign,” Adams said. “We have done a disservice to young people by telling them they are sellouts, they are Uncle Toms, they are traitors if they go into the police department.” He has no patience for that. “This is middle-class employment,” he said. “Every [Black college], every sorority, fraternity, the NAACP, the Urban League [should help]. We have to get talented young Black and brown people into law enforcement.” And, he added, we need to hold police officers accountable. Adams wants to have local community leaders involved in selecting precinct commanders.

I ask him whether he thinks he will have more influence on police-community relations than Dinkins, the city’s first Black mayor.

“I understand what it is to fight for … the safety we deserve and the justice that we want,” he replied. “It is a great moment for us. [We are] going to lead the country on how you [create] a balance of the two.”

Adams is on his way to becoming the mayor of a city with a large supply of influential, hip, and college-educated white liberals who have Black friends. They are comfortable with all the current language of racial sensitivity. They are not comfortable with Eric Adams. He did not win Manhattan’s white, affluent neighborhoods, like the Upper East Side, Upper West Side, or SoHo. He is not like their Black friends. Liberals and conservatives of any color who are seeking a racial comfort zone find his working-class persona upsetting.

When white and Black activists marched with Black Lives Matter last summer, Adams wondered where they had been when Black 13-year-olds were shooting one another in the Bronx. His approach is just as challenging to Black and Latino political leaders in New York as it is to white liberals and Black activists. They have known him over the years, but a guy who still sees himself as a policeman has never been a regular at their parties.

For the second time in his life, Adams is going from being an afterthought to being in power. The boy who was beaten by the cops became a top cop. The outspoken irritant to mayors is about to be the mayor.

Adams is happy to take on a leading role. From the time he was a street kid in Queens, he has always been attracted to power and often been critical of those who exercised their power over him. Now, somehow, the city has decided to give its forgotten man, the Black working man, a chance to wield real power. And Eric Adams will have to see if he can handle it.