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STATE SITTING ON ITS HANDS IN BMHA BIAS

Is it too strong to call the state government's conduct relating to the Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority hypocrisy?

Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y., wouldn't come close to using such a term. But he made it clear last Friday morning that the state has a job to do in Buffalo to enforce its own laws to end segregation in the BMHA.

Consider the case, as the lawyer, Mister Jaggers, said to Pip in Dickens' "Great Expectations."

Consider the case of Gov. Cuomo heading the welcoming committee for Nelson Mandela at one end of the state and allowing housing under his control to be nearly as segregated as it is in Pretoria or Capetown, South Africa, in the western end of the same state. What would Nelson Mandela say if the governor invited him to inspect the 90 per cent black projects and the 90 per cent white projects maintained by the BMHA? Would Mandela accept the notion that these projects are not segregated de jure, by law, but instead are segregated de facto, that is, by custom?

We rather doubt it. Mandela heard many troubling stories about segregation by custom in his nearly three decades in Afrikaner prisons.

But Mandela might be put off by the sophistry that one of Cuomo's top housing aides tried out on us a couple of weeks ago.

Here's how we came to talk with the state housing official: Two weeks ago we called the governor's press secretary asking for a comment on criticisms of the governor made by two black members of the Buffalo Common Council.

The Council members said that when they complained in 1987 to the federal government about the pattern of segregation they also complained in the same way to the state government. They said the governor, in effect, didn't care about the problem, that the local office of the State Division of Human Rights was dysfunctional. And they speculated that Cuomo had ducked the issue because enforcing the anti-bias codes might hurt him politically.

We didn't get a comment from the governor's office then, and we haven't since. Instead we got a call from a senior housing official and a key adviser to Cuomo, who asked for anonymity.

The state official told us a tall story. This senior Cuomo housing adviser claimed it was the federal government's job to enforce anti-bias laws in the BMHA because the segregated projects had been built with federal money. He hinted there was some sort of agreement, or understanding or something, that existed whereby the state's anti-discrimination people had to keep their mitts off such projects. Federal housing officials said this is pure bunk.

Now Mandela might have bought this yarn because he didn't realize that New York State has had the strongest anti-discrimination laws in the nation; and that New York, under Republican Gov. Dewey, was once proud of its enforcement program.

Mandela might not know that these laws were strengthened in the 1950s under Democratic Gov. Harriman, and again in the 1960s under Republican Gov. Rockefeller. (That was about when Mandela began his prison term.)

Mandela would not know that the BMHA is a creature of the New York State Legislature, and that any time he felt like it Gov. Cuomo could propose a bill reshaping this authority, firing all its members and its staff.

That's why the story the Cuomo administration is giving out might work on an inmate of a foreign Bastille or someone else who doesn't know the law. Cuomo, once a law professor, would most certainly know. But he's not commenting.

So we asked someone else who would absolutely have to know -- Sen. Moynihan, who was secretary to Gov. Harriman. Does the state, we asked Moynihan, have a responsibility under its own laws to integrate these projects?

"Yes, of course it does!" Moynihan said.

"I was there when" the state's anti-bias laws were strengthened, Moynihan said. "Yes, I know damned well. There were big battles over this."

Moynihan has held hearings in Buffalo and has persuaded Housing Secretary Jack F. Kemp to look into the problem. Kemp has found the BMHA in violation of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Which means the authority has also been in violation of state anti-bias laws for a long, long time. The fact is that Moynihan acted because the state wouldn't -- and won't.

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