Chirlane McCray made her first official solo appearance as New York’s First Lady last month at an immigration forum sponsored by the Black Institute, an “action tank” run by longtime de Blasio friend and political ally Bertha Lewis. McCray’s talk was followed by the release of a Black Institute video spot featuring McCray and the ubiquitous de Blasio children, in which the three of them proudly announce themselves as “G,” a term that, according to the Black Institute’s “G Project” website, means “A Black Immigrant—an African, Caribbean, or Afro Latino person, who has immigrated to the US from another country.” The G Project “focuses entirely on Black Immigrants” and their descendants; Chirlane McCray, the second-generation granddaughter of immigrants from Barbados, identifies herself in the video as “G-2,” while Dante and Chiara de Blasio identify themselves as “G-3.”
Mayors’ wives and children do not typically endorse specific charities or nonprofits. Donna Hanover and Joyce Dinkins, the city’s previous two first ladies, appeared in occasional commercials on behalf of noncontroversial causes such as breast cancer or literacy, but rarely if ever on behalf of a specific organization tied so closely to a political associate of one of their husbands, nor one that takes a peculiarly ethno-nationalist approach to broad policy questions.
Lewis, co-founder of the New York chapter of the Working Families Party, and the former head of ACORN, created the Black Institute in order to promote issues of concern to African-Americans, including education, economic fairness and immigration. The language of the Black Institute’s website strikes a distinctly pre-post-racial tone, somewhat reminiscent of the Black Nationalist rhetoric of the 1970s. For example, on the subject of education, the Black Institute looks wistfully to the America of segregated schools, before “Brown v. Board of Education all but eradicated the African American teaching workforce.” Elsewhere, the G Project website makes the confusing claim that “many individuals believed to be Black Americans, are actually Black Immigrants, or descendants of Black Immigrants and not descendants of black slaves.” And in a “G survey” on the website, the respondents are asked to identify the birthplace of their “maternal” and “fraternal” grandparents.
According to Lewis, the “G Project” was founded to enlighten America to the significance of black immigration: Since 1965 there has been an influx of immigrants from the Caribbean and, in lesser numbers, from sub-Saharan Africa. Lewis is concerned particularly with the plight of a number of children who came here legally with their parents, but who have aged into undocumented status. “The G Project is about visibility, putting black and other faces into the immigration debate,” she says, acknowledging that part of the G Project’s objective is to build support for immigration reform among American blacks. “Instead of focusing on the perceived ills of immigration, and the supposed divide that it has created in the black community, [the G Project] focuses on the positive aspects of immigration.”
The “perceived ills of immigration” to which Lewis is referring appear to be the fears some African-Americans have historically had of being displaced by low-skilled, low-wage immigrant labor in jobs as varied as construction, meatpacking and janitorial services. As recently as the mid-’90s, for instance, Rep. Barbara Jordan’s Commission on Immigration Reform called openly for restrictions on legal immigration and increased removal of illegal immigrants on the grounds that immigrants provide unfair competition for jobs and services for “the most vulnerable of Americans.” Opinion polls of middle and working class citizens—white, black and Latino—have consistently put the normalization of immigration status for the undocumented as a low priority, compared with jobs, education, the environment and a host of other concerns.
Strikingly, one of the goals of the Black Institute and its G Project appears to be the promotion of black immigration in order to increase the black population of America. Maintaining and expanding the “diversity visa”—an important mechanism for Africans to get into the United States—is a primary aim of the G Project. Asked why an average black American should care particularly about bringing Senegalese or Ivorians into the U.S., Lewis appealed to blood kinship as a rationale: “If you are an African-American, these are your brothers and sisters and cousins.” She added, “We talk about global civilization: If the 21st century is the century of being global, guess what? That means black faces.”
But Lewis’ enthusiasm about the future of a minority-majority “browning” America is tempered by the consideration that the black population—America’s historically dominant minority—will lose its status as America becomes more pluralistic. Lewis argues, “The immigration question should not be solely based on people jumping over borders and contending just with folks who are Latino. … We have to talk about black people. It is not just a question of increasing black immigration, which we believe does need to be increased, and which would be a net gain. But let’s get away from an immigration system and legislation that only looks at one aspect of immigration, and only has one frame.”
An odd triumphalism tinged with wishful thinking underwrites much of the G Project’s rhetoric. For instance, its website states: “it is estimated that there are over 60 million first and second generation African Americans with immigrant backgrounds.” Given that the U.S. Census Bureau puts the total number of African- Americans at less than 50 million, the G Project’s figure is off at least by an order of magnitude.
The website also makes the odd claim that “the African American vote for the first time exceeded the White vote in 2012,” a contention Lewis repeated last September in a speech before the Black Congressional Caucus, stating, “African- Americans outvoted white Americans. Oooh. That’s the fear of the white man.” In regard to the G Project’s implicit concern that black political power faces a decline in relation to growing Latino and Asian influence, Lewis stated unequivocally to City & State that blacks outvoted whites in the 2012 national election. Asked if she was speaking about the percentage of voter turnout among blacks, which was indeed higher than whites, Lewis said, “No, no, no, no, no, no, no. Darling, look it up. Black votes outnumbered white votes: More black people cast votes than white people.”
According to the U.S. Census, in 2012 white non-Hispanics cast 98 million votes, blacks cast 17.8 million votes, and Hispanics cast 11.2 million votes.
It is interesting to note that the Black Institute shares office space with the prominent consulting firm the Advance Group, which has deep ties to Mayor de Blasio, Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and WFP candidates generally. Until her recent departure from the Advance Group, both the firm and the Black Institute had the same spokeswoman, Chelsea Connor, who handled press inquiries for both organizations. The Advance Group, run by Scott Levenson, made headlines recently for its campaign work in the 2013 elections, during which the firm apparently took campaign dollars from individual campaigns as well as from outside groups supporting the same candidates through independent expenditures. Assurances that there was no improper coordination of resources have been met with skepticism by some observers (and possibly regulators).
More recently, during the campaign for the Speakership in December it emerged that the Advance Group was providing Mark-Viverito, the mayor’s preferred candidate, with unpaid assistance, a possible violation of campaign finance laws.
Deepening the connection between the firm and the mayor is another longtime personal relationship. A senior advisor at the Advance Group, Michael Gaspard, is the brother of Patrick Gaspard, the U.S. Ambassador to South Africa, a former top aide to Bertha Lewis and a confidant of the mayor’s. City & State previously reported that following the Democratic primary in September, Ambassador Gaspard stepped in to help broker Bill Thompson’s withdrawal from the race in order to spare Bill de Blasio a bloody runoff—an action some critics allege was a violation the Hatch Act, which bans most federal employees from participating in partisan political activities. It has also been written that Patrick Gaspard helped the mayor lean on Brooklyn Democratic boss Frank Seddio to throw his delegation’s support behind Mark-Viverito for Speaker. For his part, Ambassador Gaspard has denied any involvement in New York City politics.
In response to queries regarding McCray’s involvement with the Black Institute, Rebecca Katz, a spokeswoman from the mayor’s office, said, “Her grandmother is from Barbados. Both she and the mayor are deeply interested in their family history and have taken family trips to Barbados, Italy and Ghana to explore their roots.” The couple believes, Katz added, that “it is important to know where you came from in order to know where you are going.”
The videos promoting the G Project, according to Katz, “were made last summer because Bertha Lewis asked her to do it, and [McCray] thought it sounded interesting.”
Given the decades-long relationship between the mayor and his family and Lewis, it is easy to conclude that McCray’s appearance at the Black Institute’s immigration function was just what it sounds like: a favor for an old friend. The First Lady arrived an hour late and stayed for 10 minutes, and her remarks were noncontroversial. She probably has not familiarized herself deeply with some of the odd claims of the G Project’s website or its misstatement of basic demographic facts, and one imagines that she is probably unaware of the Black Institute’s vaguely racialist ideology as it pertains to increasing the immigration of Africans as a means of building black political power. Still, just as Mayor de Blasio learned through his recent experience of calling to inquire into the arrest of one of his political allies, McCray and the de Blasio children must also be careful to abide by a more stringent standard now that all of their actions are so intensely scrutinized. The First Lady must use the utmost caution in vetting the causes she supports to avoid wading into any messy political thickets that could be construed as misrepresentative of her good intentions.