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.”
In these circumstances it is small wonder that the scholastic levels of black children seriously lagged behind those of their white counterparts. For their part, white teachers deeply resented the implications of black parents that this might be due to teachers’ indifference or bigotry. The (overwhelmingly white) United Federation of Teachers cited its efforts to bring African-American history into the public schools. And UFT president Albert Shanker strenuously fought for a multimillion-dollar compensatory education program (called More Effective Schools) that he said would help solve the low achievement of black students. (Not incidentally, this labor-intensive program also meant more UFT jobs.)
For its part, though, by the mid-1960s, the black community had long lost patience with the teachers’ union. It saw the union’s tactics not only as self-serving but as downright dangerous to the emotional health of its children. As far as many African-American leaders were concerned, the reasons black kids did not perform as well as white kids were painfully obvious: White teachers judged black kids according to “white” and middle-class standards of achievement. The system routinely “tracked” pupils according to an apparatus that seriously devalued “black” culture. And as Podair shows, most white UFT teachers did not even bother to deny any of this. They did believe a “culture of poverty” stunted black children’s intellectual development, and often said so publicly. Thus, as community-control advocates angrily argued, despite the UFT’s stated belief in a pluralistic, “race-blind” meritocracy, the reality of the situation was that many white teachers were not convinced poor black kids could make it.
On May 9, 1968, the local school board of Ocean Hill-Brownsville sent a letter to Junior High School 271 science teacher Fred Nauman telling him he had been dismissed. Seventeen other white and Jewish Ocean Hill-Brownsville educators also received notification that their services would no longer be required in the district. In response, the UFT called a citywide teachers’ strike. Two more strikes followed.
Podair’s version of events captures the awesome complexity of the crisis. No major player came away looking spotless. It was a story, as Podair states, with “few clear-cut heroes or villains.” UFT president Shanker, for instance, despite a lifelong commitment to social democratic causes, did not hesitate to fuel the antiblack prejudices of his union’s rank and file–the better to bolster his own stature. The African-American administrator of the Ocean Hill-Brownsville school district, Rhody McCoy, seeking to break the teachers’ strike by any means necessary, hired replacement teachers and provided the names of striking teachers to draft boards (hoping to cost them their deferments from service in Vietnam). And Mayor Lindsay, a high-minded proponent of community control, badly miscalculated white middle-class resentment (as his nightmarish visit to the Brooklyn synagogue suggested). According to Podair, his actions tended only to widen the chasm between white and black New York.
Once settled, there was little doubt that the strike had been the most embittering in the city’s history. The UFT claimed victory: Its teachers had been reinstated, and the authority of the Ocean Hill-Brownsville school board had been broken. But the union’s triumph came at a high price. Nearly a million children had been out of school for almost two months. Far more significant, the strike gutted any illusion of an enduring black-Jewish political partnership. As the strike proceeded, blacks had charged teachers with racism, while the largely Jewish union had labeled community-control advocates black anti-Semites.
One of Podair’s major arguments concerns the city’s Jews, especially those outside Manhattan, who now increasingly saw their interests as opposed to those of their erstwhile African-American allies. “For decades,” Podair writes, “New York’s Jews had straddled the white and nonwhite worlds of the city, attracted by aspects of each.” Jews had long served as cultural mediators between white and black New York, and so had “helped blunt the force of more primal racial passions.” After Ocean Hill-Brownsville, this would no longer be the case. Outer-borough Jews would now side mainly with former adversaries: their illiberal white ethnic neighbors. Consequently, by the 1970s New York’s black population found its political base more severely restricted than ever before. And the left-leaning cosmopolitanism of greater New York City would never be quite the same again.
The greatest strength of this book, though, lies not so much in Podair’s explicit arguments. Instead, the biggest contribution he makes is the evidence he amasses of the larger historical context of the Ocean Hill-Brownsville debacle. As The Strike That Changed New York demonstrates, neglecting this background both critically distorts the historical record and alters how the meaning of the strike is interpreted.
For one thing, Podair surveys the socioeconomic landscape of the two decades before the strike, cataloguing the deeply divergent impact on white and black lives of postwar New York’s transformation from “a thriving working-class city” into “the corporate headquarters of the world.” These same decades coincided with the second great black migration to New York; the percentage of African-Americans in the city more than tripled between 1940 and 1968. In Brooklyn during this period, the black population increased more than sixfold.
Yet this vast new pool of black workers moved to a city where the available employment options for unskilled or semiskilled labor were rapidly vanishing. In the quarter-century after 1945, New York lost nearly half of all jobs in the manufacturing sector. Meanwhile white-collar employment opportunities grew exponentially. And these jobs required a high school education at a minimum. Success in the public schools became the ticket to economic and social mobility. The options available to a high school dropout just a generation earlier no longer existed. As Podair writes, “The crucial role education would play as a means of advancement–as a commodity–in the city’s new economy was lost on neither blacks nor whites.”
Perhaps most significant, Podair also details white resistance to school integration in the first half of the 1960s. It is this immediate prehistory to the demands for “community control” that Jacoby’s and Traub’s versions so disturbingly leave out. Podair underscores how the very idea of “community control” that would so divide New Yorkers in 1968 actually originated in a white middle-class neighborhood in Queens four years earlier. It was then that a citywide grassroots movement of 300,000 people united to block the first-ever New York public-school desegregation plan. Citing the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection clause, this white coalition argued that it was unconstitutional to “force” white students to attend a school outside their own neighborhood solely on the basis of their race. And although they would lose the lawsuit, they won a more substantial victory, successfully pressuring the Board of Education to retreat. By 1966, the New York City public schools remained as segregated as ever. As Podair wryly concludes: “‘Community’–white community–had won out.”
There are some weaknesses in Podair’s book. His hesitation to explain more directly how his narrative of events differs from neoliberal and neoconservative accounts robs his story of some of its inherent historiographical drama. He is occasionally repetitive. And he does not mention how Brooklyn-based Rabbi Meir Kahane’s Jewish Defense League came to prominence during this moment, fanning the flames of Jewish antiblack hysteria at every turn. And Podair’s overarching thesis about the change in New York from one big tolerant place to a city divided sharply along tribal lines occasionally feels strained. But the inherent value of his tale is nonetheless considerable. For we now have a movingly thorough and fair-minded account of the Ocean Hill-Brownsville crisis that neither scapegoats black militants nor slams white liberals. Given how this story still tends to get handed down, that’s no small feat.
The 1960s just aren’t what they used to be. So much the better.