I think a lot of that was tension between two oppressed groups that didn’t always understand each others’ oppression. I used to write articles about this and circulate them to try to bring about an understanding.
Today, things have improved. I think the African American community has realized the danger of hate speech. For instance, a few years ago, Teen People was planning to run a feature on two teenage twins who were glorifying the Nazi period, and a whole group of African American elected officials came out to condemn this. I don’t think you would’ve seen that back in the ’80s….
There has been a great sense of learning in my career. I used to get into fights with Assemblyman Dov Hikind and Councilman Noach Dear, but I found common ground with a lot of people when I started to understand why they feel the way they feel – which is what I think is missing in public service.
That’s actually what drove me into public service. I mean, I was an African American kid with a disability who felt discriminated against by the disabled people because I was black, and then ostracized by the African Americans because I had a disability. And I thought, “This is really kind of silly.” So that’s sort of been my mission.
You will be facing a tough election year in 2010. What message do you have for the Jewish community?
Well, many people in the Jewish community are very concerned about the State of Israel. And we have this new national policy where we’re trying to engage many of these countries that have declared they would like to, if they could, eliminate Israel.
But I think the fact that there isn’t stronger international condemnation of [statements of leaders calling for Israel’s destruction] almost leads them to think that it might be a good time to start organizing to that end.
There have to be voices, of which I consider myself one, that are saying, “Listen, if you really want to negotiate, we’ll negotiate, but not as long as you’re engaging in that kind of rhetoric, which, in a sense, almost fosters international terrorism.” We allow the dictators of these regimes to have a forum at the UN every year. I’ve tried to be part of the protests against that.
For Jewish people who live right here in the city and state of New York, I think they have the same problems as Catholics and Protestants, which is this economy that we’ve got to replenish. We have got to avoid going to the places where California and Michigan and now Illinois are going. And we’ve got to tighten our belts, push through this period, and start investing in the kind of business development and economic job creation that will bring us back to prosperity.