In October 1968, at the height of the Ocean Hill-Brownsville crisis, New York Mayor John Lindsay got heckled off the stage at a synagogue in Brooklyn. “Lindsay must go!” shouted the enraged crowd when he attempted to address the congregation about his support for school decentralization. As the Mayor and his wife left the temple protected by a battery of police, a mob about 5,000 strong attacked their limousine. Was this any way for a nice middle-class Jewish community to behave?
Although the 1960s continue to be remembered, and taught, chiefly as an era when left-wing protests and liberal commitments flourished, we have long known (but far less often acknowledged) that the same years also fostered the emergence of white populist movements motivated by harsh racial biases. Jerald Podair brings this far more sobering portrait of the 1960s and their racial and ethnic politics starkly to light in The Strike That Changed New York, his study of the decentralization and attempted desegregation of the city’s public school system. As Podair meticulously re-creates, the angry white people–in newly reconfigured alliances of Irish, Italian and Jewish Americans–often got their way.
Meanwhile, there is a new trend evident, especially in journalistic writings about school desegregation in the 1960s. These writings downplay Northern white racism, bash black militancy as intolerant and foolishly hostile to integration, and lament liberal accommodation to radical demands. In these accounts, Brooklyn’s Ocean Hill-Brownsville, where African-Americans set up a local all-black board to administer their district’s failing public schools, becomes the textbook case. In Someone Else’s House, for instance, Tamar Jacoby tells the Ocean Hill-Brownsville story as a cautionary one about the kind of tragedy that ensues when white liberals (like Lindsay) get themselves wrapped around the little fingers of black militants demanding “community control” through decentralization of public education.
In a New York Times Magazine article this past October, staff writer James Traub suggested much the same. Labeling the Ocean Hill-Brownsville crisis “one of the great, agonizing racial psychodramas in New York history,” he also took jabs at black militancy and at left-wing impulses in the 1960s as a whole. Traub summarized the results of the community-control experiment as wholesale inefficiency, a destruction of meritocracy and the mismanagement of tens of millions of dollars in school funds by poor nonwhites. He sarcastically contrasted the brainy and successful management style of the current (white) superintendent with “all those years of homegrown, ethnically correct leadership.” And he declared: “Among all the experiments forced on a reluctant city by the turmoil of the 60’s, community control was arguably the most harmful.” Yet these accounts reach their conclusions largely by leaving out crucial background.
Just when current Mayor Michael Bloomberg has won applause by declaring New York school decentralization dead and buried, it is good to be reminded that the community-control experiment was neither as misguided nor unjustified as retrospective accounts circulating now might have us believe. As Podair’s book helpfully documents, community-control activists and their supporters (who at that time, by the way, included the New York Times) did not pull the idea of a decentralized school system out of thin air. For one thing, it was manifestly evident that the city’s public schools were not all created equal. Most black children in New York attended schools that were more than 90 percent nonwhite. They also invariably sat in overcrowded classes that little resembled those of white schoolchildren. Furthermore, after a tenure of five years, all teachers gained permission to transfer out of black schools–and most opted to do precisely that. In practice, this relegated black children to larger classes taught by the least experienced teachers in the city. As Podair observes, “by the early 1960s, New York effectively had a dual public school system.”