As a member of the New York City Council for 10 years, I had a front-row seat to the good that government can do to support its citizens. But sometimes even the most well-intentioned public servants get it wrong. The current push to ban the sale of fur and shearling across the five boroughs is one of those times.
No matter where you stand on wearing fur, there is no denying the fashion industry, and fur in particular, has been an economic engine for New York for generations, providing countless immigrants in particular an opportunity to learn a trade, make a living and support their families.
I should know because it’s where I got my start.
I arrived in America from Jamaica in 1958 without a penny in my pocket. I was a business-school student looking for an opportunity. My first job was at a local fur shop, where I helped keep the books and learned the ins and outs of running a small business.
Today, the industry still provides jobs to more than 7,500 New Yorkers at hundreds of small businesses across the five boroughs, according to a study commissioned by the International Fur Federation Americas. It also brings in millions of dollars in taxable revenue. The report further notes that in the first year alone, a fur ban would cost the city upwards of $800 million dollars in taxable revenue.
Those are funds that could be used to improve health, upgrade schools, expand services for the elderly, rebuild parks and playgrounds and improve child-care programs. Instead, the Council would be voting to put people out of work. These are well paying, middle-class jobs in retail, design and even manufacturing.
But the moral implications of this ban may be as significant as the economic questions.
I understand that for the Council speaker, who I deeply respect as a principled leader, this is about protecting animals. (Though we might ask why by that standard it’s still okay for New Yorkers to wear leather, which is made from animal skin, and to buy and consume factory-farmed meat, and eggs and dairy from less than humane animal facilities.)
Instead of wearing real fur, he says, we can wear fake fur, he says, even though fake fur is made from plastics and chemicals.
For my community, this debate is about protecting people’s fundamental right to decide for ourselves what we can buy and how to express ourselves. Those are rights we have had to fight for over decades.
For many of us, fur is not just a coat. Buying and wearing fur has significant cultural and social meaning, showing that economic attainment and equality is possible.
As a fur worker all those years ago, I remember the pride on the faces of my customers when they could come in and buy their first fur.
Today I see that look in my own community, where buying and wearing fur symbolizes our rise above poverty and oppression, our attainment of the American Dream. From Beyonce and Cardi B. and Aretha Franklin on the big stage, to the church ladies in the pews on Sunday, black folks wear fur with pride.
When I first came to this country, only the wealthiest people could afford to buy a fur. To afford a fur was to afford the warmth of winter, and I felt lucky to own one because I worked in the industry.
Telling us we can’t buy something that more of us are finally able to purchase just doesn’t sit well.
The City Council has other ways to move business in a more sustainable direction without eliminating an entire industry, killing jobs and taking away people’s rights. It’s possible to be a city with a conscience and with compassion — for history, for people’s livelihoods and for different points of view.
If you like to wear fur, wear it proud. If you don’t, that’s okay too. It’s a personal choice — not one for the City Council to make for us.