David Dinkins and the HBCU Art of Leadership Development

In politics, there’s an old saying that if a Black person is elected to tell white folks what to do things must be in such bad shape that only a superhero or a scapegoat will do. Former New York City Mayor David Dinkins was both of those things to Gotham, and he died earlier this week at the age of 93 leaving behind a legacy that seems complex to many, but all too familiar to those of us in Black spaces and from our unique points of perspective.

The New York Times did a great job yesterday of capturing the fullness of Dinkins’ legacy from Howard University graduate to the metropolitan mayor. Within its opening graphs, the NYT best-captured the way some in New York remember the man and his leadership.

He was remembered as a somewhat reluctant trailblazer and a gentleman who led the city during a difficult period of fiscal crisis and racial tension — themes that the city and the nation are currently grappling with once again.

This is part of the challenge of being Black and in leadership — a constant struggle to manage the commonplace politics and cultural allegiances that an official must maintain to lead an organization, the expectations heaped upon and working against the leader’s interest on account of their race, and finding the space to simply be human.

All leaders are expected to be compassionate, level-headed, thoughtful, articulate, and visionary; but one degree in the wrong direction on either of those traits transforms a candidate or an elected official into gullible, deadpan, unrelatable, out-of-touch, or ambitious.

This is the part where we discuss how historically Black colleges and universities became so adept at training these kinds of leaders. How did Dinkins, Marion Barry, Maynard Jackson, and others become empowered to hurl themselves towards the harmful, character-testing industry of public service? The common thread, for them and others who have followed them, is the HBCU.

These leaders learned the covert arts of addressing Black need within white desire, and how code-switching and networking are more about time and place rather than loyalty to the race. Dinkins implemented programs to address crime and to bolster tourism which grew in the years following his departure. Barry and Jackson created economic development for Black families in cities which, because of their efforts, originated the term “white flight.”

Other Black mayors, state and federal lawmakers, have followed the blueprint to great success.

How are the HBCUs doing it? The secret is in the balance of culture and curriculum. Faculty teach students the skills to perform a job and the soft skills needed to navigate racism and professional subterfuge. Students challenge each other to be the best versions of themselves, particularly in organizational function, activism, and campus life.

HBCU alumni network to place graduates in opportunities that don’t mismatch skill and job duties but challenge them to rise about the competition by way of their intellect and determination. It is a tested system that has worked across industries and throughout generations but is rarely talked about until the best of these graduates get a hard-earned shot to succeed, leave that spot, or die before we truly knew the scope of their impact.

By the time most observers knew how much Dinkins had done to improve New York City, Rudolph Giuliani was well on his way to earning credit and building a legacy that sat comfortably on top of Dinkins’ vision. Washington D.C., and Atlanta, as we know them today, are hubs for Black renaissance because of the work of Barry and Jackson decades before.

Much like the schools which trained them, the credit doesn’t come easy or on time. But they are the great lions of a broad network that has rebuilt cities and country in tough times. Their work is a reflection of how sorely needed HBCUs have always been, and just how much they’ll be needed in the future.