Dinkins Reflects on Black Political Power as District Primary Approaches

On a balmy Thursday morning, David N. Dinkins strolled into his Columbia University office in typical style, dressed in a seersucker jacket decorated with white buttons and a blue pocket square. Around his neck was one of the bowties that has become his trademark since his time as mayor, this one dark blue with red polka dots.

Mr. Dinkins, 88, leaned on a cane as he stepped through his office door. It was perhaps one of the few moments during a recent interview that betrayed his age. As he took a seat behind his broad, cherry desk, he was surrounded by awards and photos of world leaders, and he chose his words carefully. He spoke with a quiet confidence.

As the first – and, thus far, only – black mayor of New York, Dinkins has been a stalwart of the city’s political scene for more than four decades. He has stepped away from the limelight in recent years, but Representative Charles B. Rangel’s planned retirement from New York’s 13th Congressional District seat has prompted Mr. Dinkins to step cautiously into the ring once again.

“What you must appreciate is that I’m very old,” Mr. Dinkins said, “And I come from a generation way back, and I’ve seen a lot. I’ve lived through a lot.”

He went on to enumerate the ills of Jim Crow, what it was like to serve in a segregated military and how hard he and his generation fought to assert black political power in New York City.

As one of the pre-eminent figures in Harlem politics and a member of the fabled “Gang of Four,” Mr. Dinkins certainly recognizes the torch-passing significance of the retirement of Mr. Rangel, whom he refers to as “my brother.”

For the family of civil-rights-era black leaders who went on to enter New York politics, including Mr. Dinkins and Mr. Rangel, support has seemed to coalesce around Keith L.T. Wright, the longtime assemblyman who is running in the Democratic primary on June 28.

“He is well-educated and honest and hard-working,” Mr. Dinkins said, without further elaboration except to add: “Moreover, he’s going to win.”

Mr. Dinkins, who has also watched the national presidential election unfold, said that it was crucial for the next president to make racial diversity and inclusion a priority.

“I just want whoever serves in the presidency on down to recognize the paucity of people of color in so many positions,” said Mr. Dinkins, who pointed to movements fighting inequality as a step in the right direction.

“Black lives do matter,” he added.

While Mr. Dinkins noted that much has improved since his days serving in a segregated Marines Corps, he leaves no doubt that he is still not pleased with the status quo.

“It is criminal, really, for people of color to be stopped simply because they are of color,” Mr. Dinkins said, referring to racial profiling and policies like stop-and-frisk. “We’ve got a long way to go. Things are not what they need to be, but thank God they are better than they used to be.”