One Police Plaza

The NYPD's Literary Connection

October 2, 2017

Readers, did you know that the NYPD has a connection to the highest levels of American literature? Specifically to the novelist Philip Roth and arguably his finest novel, "The Human Stain.”

Among other things, the novel mocks political correctness run amok in academia. Its central character, Coleman Silk, is a college professor, forced to resign after he used the word “spooks.” In addition to meaning “ghosts,” as Silk had intended, the word has a negative racial connotation for African Americans. Roth’s irony is that Silk is a light-skinned black man who during his entire adult life has passed himself off as white.

In his recently published book, “Why Write?,” Roth explains that “The Human Stain”was inspired by an incident that occurred some 40 years ago to his friend, Melvin Tumin, a distinguished Princeton sociology professor.

Tumin had asked about two students who had not shown up for his class the entire semester, saying, “Does anyone know these people? Do they exist or are they spooks?”

It turned out those two students were African-Americans. For the next two years, Tumin was hounded both by Princeton and the New Jersey State Office of Civil Rights for alleged “hate speech.”

The irony is that Tumin, who was eventually cleared of the “hate speech” charges and who died in 1994, was well-known for his writings on desegregation and his efforts to break down social barriers at Princeton’s exclusive eating clubs, which were regarded as racist and anti-Semitic.

O.K., so what does all this have to do with the NYPD?

Well, it turns out that Tumin’s son Zach is the NYPD’s deputy commissioner for technology and strategic initiatives, responsible for the department’s social media. He was hired three years ago by former Commissioner Bill Bratton after Tumin collaborated on Bratton’s book,Collaborate or Perish.”

Referring to his father and the “spooks” incident, he said, “This was a terrible turn of events personally for my dad. It was devastating for him. He was the subject of numerous departmental and state investigations.”

Ironically, said Tumin, “My father was one of the first sociologists to document the resistance to integration in the south. He worked closely with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. He and Thurgood Marshall were close.

“As a tenured faculty member at Princeton, my dad had been a critic of the longstanding selection practices of Princeton eating clubs. My dad was principally responsible for the tenured faculty’s putting its foot down and saying this would not do.”

Zack Tumin himself knew Roth, who was then writer-in-residence at Princeton. Both Roth and Melvin Tumin were from Newark, where many of Roth’s novels are centered.

“He and my dad became lifelong friends. He [Roth] was very supportive during my dad’s ordeal. The end result was that the incident passed its way into literature.”

A couple of years ago, Zack Tumin had his own politically correct incident after he tweeted — presciently, as it has turned out — that the lack of mental health services was leading to numerous police shootings of mentally disturbed people.

Some on social media regarded his 2015 tweet — “People off their meds r losing it @ wlking into police bullets” — as oversimplifying the issue and blaming those police-involved shootings on the mentally ill.

Reacting to the social media complaints, the department said Zumin’s tweet did not reflect NYPD policy.


Copyright © 2017 Leonard Levitt