In the Diaspora: Quiet riot

New York's 1967-68 school decentralization crisis contributed to the birth of a more street-wise liberalism.

September 20, 2007 12:35
4 minute read.
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For New Yorkers of a certain age and temperament, particularly the Jews who once comprised the corps of public schoolteachers, September 11 carried the taint of disaster long before al-Qaida. On that date in 1967, the teachers' union went out on strike, the first of four walkouts over barely a year. Some American cities fell apart with race riots, as did Newark and Detroit in the summer of 1967. New York had the functional equivalent in the form of its struggle over school decentralization, a quiet riot that reached its embittered apogee in the teachers' strikes. At stake, narrowly, was the operation of several experimental school districts in black or Puerto Rican slums, which pit community activists against the United Federation of Teachers. Such a thumbnail description, though, is altogether too quaint and polite. The deeper, more lasting meaning of the episode was the public confrontation between Jews who disproportionately taught and administered public schools and blacks who were increasingly the students and parents in them. To put it even more precisely, the relevant divide separated middle-class Jews as typified by union president Albert Shanker and a new alliance of impoverished minorities and WASP elites, embodied by Mayor John Lindsay and McGeorge Bundy of the Ford Foundation - the two leading establishment exponents of community control. Until September 1967, there was some faint possibility the chasm could be bridged by enough shared self-interest, considering that Shanker had impeccable credentials as a civil-rights supporter and that public-employee unions were reaching out to blacks. But when Shanker's union members walked out that fall - ostensibly over issues of class size, funding for magnet schools, and greater autonomy for teachers to suspend unruly students - the blacks who led the experimental district in Brooklyn called Ocean Hill-Brownsville kept their buildings open. That act of defiance anticipated the far more vicious events to come in 1968, as white educators were summarily fired in Ocean-Hill Brownsville and a succession of city-wide strikes in response provided a veritable open-mike night for anti-Semitism and racism. AS A TEACHER who lived through it remembered years later, "We had the Jewish Defense League out there. We had Mark Rudd with the S.D.S. It was a Who's Who of fanatics." In the moment, the greatest losers looked to be New York's Jewish teachers, Shanker foremost among them. These supposed liberals, these putative idealists alienated blacks, their presumed allies, and also estranged a great many apolitical white ethnics, who had simply wanted the schools open because they had nowhere else to park their kids. Woody Allen memorably captured the zeitgeist in a deadpan quip in his film Sleeper, when a character who has been frozen for 200 years reawakens to learn that civilization had been destroyed when "a man by the name of Albert Shanker got hold of a nuclear warhead." Measured in the fullness of time, though, the greatest wounds were the self-inflicted ones of the black-elite alliance. The expansion of the community-control model to all of New York's elementary and junior high schools quickly devolved into a morass of corruption and educational failure. The local school board elections meant to engage the citizenry attracted as few as 4 percent of eligible voters and were dominated by, of all forces, the teachers' union. By the early 1990s, the most idealistic proponents of decentralization, such as the Catholic monsignor John Powis, were calling for its revocation. That action finally came in 2002, as part of Michael Bloomberg's assumption of mayoral control. The era of the Jewish schoolteacher in New York, an era inextricably if sometimes exaggeratedly bound up with the glory years of public education, began its demise with the 1967-68 strikes. During the latter year, the retirement rate of teachers and principals quintupled. Since then, budget cuts, normal aging, and disgust with Bloomberg's educational micromanagement have continued the Jewish exodus. And in the larger collapse of the black-Jewish partnership, the school-decentralization crisis loomed large. It served far outside New York as a standard narrative, almost a creation myth, for Jewish estrangement from liberalism, or at least for the identity politics that came to supplant a class-based style of New Deal liberalism. SOMETHING BESIDES the serendipity of the calendar prompts these observations. (As a journalism professor, I always warn my students that anniversaries make for flimsy, if facile news pegs.) A fine biography of Albert Shanker has just appeared, Tough Liberal, by Richard D. Kahlenberg. Tough Liberal reads like a very conscious brief on behalf of Shanker's rehabilitation. But, in fact, Shanker had managed quite effectively to tend to repair his own reputation by the time of his death in 1997. As a teachers' union leader who advocated forcefully for a core curriculum and professional standards, he went to his grave viewed as a statesmen rather than a special pleader, eulogized by then-president Clinton. The greater value of Kahlenberg's book is its vivid portrait of how liberalism went awry and the compelling question it asks about what America might look like had the loss of direction not occurred. Shanker was cast out of the liberal temple despite a track record of union organizing and civil-rights activity. He got the Vietnam War wrong, as Kahlenberg acknowledges, but Solidarity and the Sandinistas right. Portrayed by his enemies as a reactionary, indistinguishable from Jewish neocons like Norman Podhoretz and Irving Kristol, he endorsed Teddy Kennedy for president in 1980. "Shanker believed in what might be called 'tough liberalism,'" Kahlenberg succinctly puts it, "an ideology that champions an affirmative role for government in promoting social mobility, social cohesion, and greater equality at home and greater democracy abroad, but which is tough-minded about human nature, the way the world works, and the reality of evil." A labor anthem demands of its listeners, "Which side are you on?" Official New York chose the wrong side 40 years ago, and it has taken nearly all the intervening time to dress the wounds and fix the damage.

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