Crown Heights: Blacks, Jews and the 1991 Brook­lyn Riot

Edward S. Shapiro
  • Review
By – October 18, 2011
As Edward S. Shapiro’s com­pre­hen­sive analy­sis of the alarm­ing events of 1991 indi­cates, under­stand­ing an event often relies on rec­og­niz­ing that mem­o­ry and cul­ture influ­ence per­cep­tion. The facts in the Crown Heights sto­ry are that sev­en-year-old Gavin Cato was struck by an auto­mo­bile dri­ven by a mem­ber of the Lubav­itch­er Rebbe’s con­voy. After Gavin’s acci­den­tal death, Yankel Rosen­baum, an Aus­tralian stu­dent whose style of dress iden­ti­fied him as an Ortho­dox Jew, hap­pened upon a group of angry young black men a few blocks away. One or more assailants stabbed him, and he died in a near­by hos­pi­tal. Three days of riot­ing ensued, under­min­ing a community’s con­fi­dence and pro­found­ly affect­ing a may­oral elec­tion. All else is interpretation. 

Shapiro care­ful­ly dis­sects these events, but this book is more than mere reportage. It serves as a valu­able his­tor­i­cal and soci­o­log­i­cal doc­u­ment. He ana­lyzes the demo­graph­ic unique­ness of Crown Heights, the social and polit­i­cal sta­tus of the Jews and their African-Amer­i­can and Caribbean neigh­bors and the role played by oppor­tunis­tic hang­ers-on. Ulti­mate­ly he implic­it­ly pos­es the ques­tion of whether or not a sal­vage­able black-Jew­ish pro­gres­sive polit­i­cal entente” ever existed.

Shapiro describes the community’s efforts to heal the wounds that were opened in 1991, but when he attempts to dis­cern hope­ful signs, he finds that the neigh­bor­hood did not fun­da­men­tal­ly change and the Jews did not flee.” Per­haps this is an impor­tant real­iza­tion: that there are good peo­ple in Crown Heights who live sim­ple lives that are root­ed in their cul­tures. Unlike the pun­dits who seek the big­ger answers, they sim­ply try to live in peace.

Noel Kriftch­er was a pro­fes­sor and admin­is­tra­tor at Poly­tech­nic Uni­ver­si­ty, hav­ing pre­vi­ous­ly served as Super­in­ten­dent of New York City’s Brook­lyn & Stat­en Island High Schools district.

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