In The New York Times today, Ta-Nehisi Coates denounces President Obama for considering the possibility of appointing Ray Kelly as homeland security secretary:
Kelly's name has been floated by New York politicians of both parties as the ideal replacement for Janet Napolitano, who resigned last week. The president responded by calling Kelly "well-qualified" and an "outstanding leader in New York." ...Not to defend the Kelly supporters -- Coates is right that this would be a terrible pick -- but I think the police commissioner's reputation among liberals and moderates has benefited quite a bit from circumstance, specifically from the contrast between Kelly and people who seemed a lot worse.
"Mr. Kelly might be very happy where he is," said the president. "But if he's not, I'd want to know about it."
... It is now public knowledge that the police department, each year, stops hundreds of thousands of citizens, largely black and Latino men, for reasons as thin and subjective as "furtive movements." Very few of those stops lead to actual charges, much less arrests, and according to the commissioner that's fine.
... Last year, The Associated Press reported that the N.Y.P.D. has organized a network of agents and informants strictly for the purpose of spying on Muslim communities. The appropriately dubbed "Demographics Unit" has extended its reach along the Northeastern seaboard, sending informants to spy on Muslim rafting trips, mosques in Newark and Muslim organizations at Yale and the University of Pennsylvania....
It was candidate Obama who in 2008 pledged to "ban racial profiling" on a federal level and work to have it prohibited on the state level. It was candidate Obama who told black people that if they voted they would get a new kind of politics. And it was State Senator Obama who understood that profiling was the antithesis of such politics. Those of us raising our boys in the wake of Trayvon, or beneath the eye of the Demographics Unit, cannot fathom how the president could forget this.
During the Bush years, Kelly sold himself as a guy who actually knew how to keep his people safe from terrorism at a time when the Bush administration had missed the 9/11 signals, then mired us in a war in Iraq over nonexistent WMDs and specious ties to 9/11. Kelly told us he was able to take advantage of New York's diversity to reach out to various ethnic communities; he told us his officers spoke languages and dialects that allowed them access to jihadist chat rooms. People fell for it. I admit I fell for it. The underside of this has gotten through to the mainstream consciousness only gradually.
It's also taken a while for the mainstream to grasp the racial animus Kelly's police tactics are creating. You have to recall that Mike Bloomberg came into office and seemed -- at least to those of us who are white -- profoundly less racially polarizing than his race-baiting immediate predecessor, Rudy Giuliani, or the racially inflammatory Ed Koch. (In between Koch and Giuliani was David Dinkins, not a baiter but a constant target of race-baiting.) We hoped racial tension had peaked in the Giuliani years with the Abner Louima, Amadou Diallo, and Patrick Dorismond incidents, which culminated in the resignation of police commissioner Howard Safir.
So, in a couple of ways, Kelly looked good by contrast.
And, yeah, New York's crime rate has stayed low, though I wonder how much that has to do with the fact that our top industry -- taking everyone's money, otherwise known as high finance -- continues to thrive, thus preventing us from turning into Detroit. I also think it helps that we're a gun control city in a gun control state, and surrounded by gun control states -- you can get illegal guns into New York City, but it's just a bit harder.
In any case, Kelly benefited from not being in the Bush administration and from not being in the Giuliani administration. That doesn't excuse anyone who's overlooking his record, but it's a partial explanation.